"pipe dream"

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Mon Jul 21 20:37:06 UTC 2008

Of possible interest, a column I wrote on the origins of "pipe dream":


Executive summary:

1880: "pipe-born dreams" in description of opium dens in San Francisco's
1890: "pipe dream" used without reference to opium, in two Chicago papers on
the same day (Daily Tribune and Daily Inter Ocean, Dec. 11, 1890)
1895: "pipe dream" (and "pipe story") explained as from opium use

The odd chronology, with the extended use of "pipe dream" attested earlier
than the ostensibly original sense, is perhaps due to taboo restrictions on
the slang of opium dens. Nonetheless, by 1890 "pipe dream" was common enough
(in Chicago at least) for it to be used on the same day in two different
papers, without even scare quotes.

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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