Notes From Babel

A Plague on Words: “Coming Down the Pike/Pipe”

with 6 comments

I listened to a speaker yesterday talking about recent constitutional law cases who mentioned another case that might be “coming down the pike.”  Whenever I hear the expression, I always listen carefully to the last syllable, at the ready to offer a chortle if he happened to say “pipe” instead of “pike.”  Much like I do with other commonly mangled expressions, like when people say “mustard the troops,” or “to the vicar go the spoils.”  As the original meaning and imagery behind expressions is lost or forgotten, we find more and more mangled language coming out of the woodwinds.

But the speaker got it right: “coming down the pike.”  But, I wondered, would it have made any difference if he had said “pipe” instead?  Can you name one other instance when you would use the word “pike” other than in this tired expression?  What does it even mean?  According to this site, it refers to a road—as in “turnpike”—along which new ideas traveled via books and newspapers:

The expression coming down the pike originated before the days of TV and the internet. In those days most new ideas came to town by way of the highway. Upon opening the morning newspaper, one might say

Let’s see what’s new coming down the pike.

Here’s a quotation from an international website about economics:

There is more bad news coming down the pike, news of such magnitude that no amount of ordinary manipulation is liable to conceal it.–GlobalResearch.ca

Apparently, Arkansans still use the word “pike” for “road.”

Be that as it may, if this was the true meaning of the expression, what possible use can it have to us today?  Fewer and fewer people look to traditional newspapers to get new information, and indeed if they were to give voice to a desire to see some new information, an expression to that end ought to actually refer to the likely source of such information.

In fact, “coming down the pike” might very well mean the opposite of what it used to mean.  If we are getting information for the first time from “down the pike,” the news is likely to be quite old.  Several hours old, even.  By that time, the journalist will have already been fired and the blogosphere will be talking about how sick they are of talking about the story.  Thus, if you want truly new news, you’re going to be looking to the internet or television.

But check this out:  Wikipedia (and citing to an actual published source) tells us “The term pipe is a commonly used idiom to refer to a data connection, with pipe diameter being analogous to bandwidth or throughput.” Thus, the modified expression “coming down the pipe” could easily be taken to refer to information coming across popular high-speed information sources such as the internet or cable, digital, or satellite TV.

Thus, if the expression is to have any true meaning today, there seems to be quite a solid case for changing it to “coming down the pipe.”

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Written by Tim Kowal

October 22, 2010 at 9:01 am

6 Responses

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  1. […] often-misspoken idiom, as you’ll often hear people say “down the pipe” instead. Tim Kowal has a really interesting blog about how, considering the new landscape of the way information and ideas travel, “down the […]

  2. Many roads is SE Pennsylvania are named pikes. Look at a street map of Bucks County for examples.

    Leah

    November 22, 2014 at 1:15 am

  3. I am an expat. Brit, and as far as I remember , the UK they say “coming down the pipe”

    Satinshoe

    November 24, 2014 at 2:56 pm

  4. I understood the phrase actually originated at the 1904 World Fair. There was a boardwalk, called The Pike”, where jugglers, street performers, parades, etc. came multiple times a day. So people would say, :Let’s go see what’s coming down the Pike”. It’s in the history books.

    .

    Vivienne

    August 20, 2015 at 10:44 am

  5. Woodwinds? HAHAHA!

    Anonymous

    September 30, 2016 at 6:49 am

  6. I had imagined it to be referring to the middle age weapon “pike”. I can imagine anything coming down that sort of pike would be none-to-plesant!

    John Smith

    February 14, 2017 at 10:22 pm


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