How Did the Pipe Get Its Name?
Ben Rapaport, November 2022
As a pipe collector and tobacco-industry historian, I’ve always believed that there’s yet more to research, reveal, and recount about the lengthy history of pipes and tobacco. Ideas for my several books and countless articles have come from anywhere and everywhere … and often. As my dear friend Chuck Stanion wrote in his biography about me on smokingpipes.com: “He keeps finding subject matter that ignites his passions and he can’t help himself. He keeps writing, keeps researching, and keeps contributing to the pipe-smoking community.” (Well, for me, the Words Matter Week that is celebrated annually in March is every week for me.)
I have written much about pipe history, but I had not investigated the mundane word pipe … until now. My curiosity was recently piqued to ask why the word pipe, a word pipe collectors and smokers take for granted, a word that requires no special attention, a word accepted without question, objection, or challenge? Why not a different word, such as delivery implement, receptacle, utensil, or container? Words have meaning, so they should signify something symbolic, something that gives context to the item. Their origin or history helps provide context. By understanding a word’s original meaning and how it may have transformed over time, and how people have used it in the past and present, one can understand the subtle differences. It’s said that the best arguments are the ones that help us see the world differently. Here’s my argument to help us see the word pipe differently. What follows are the results of my research to trace the translation, transition, and transformation of the word pipe. Fair warning: this is not a lightweight-linguistics essay; it’s a serious, syntactical study.
In 1889, Dr. A. Ernst wrote “On the Etymology of the Word Tobacco,” but there’s no equivalent treatise about the word pipe. (Katherine T. Kell’s thesis, “Folk Names for Tobacco”  did not inspire anyone to craft a parallel account, “Folk Names for Pipes.”) I am confident that no one who smokes or collects pipes has ever traced the derivation of this word through time in a scholarly fashion to determine who decided that pipe was the right word for this smoking device. What were the word’s roots and its journey into English? Where and when did it first appear in the literature? When found in print, did pipe and tobacco pipe mean the same thing or different things? History has not been able to precisely pinpoint how and when they became the generally accepted terms for a utensil to smoke tobacco. I wanted to find an explanation as to how and when these two terms—whose origin and parentage are rather obscure—entered general usage.
First, a definition with which everyone can agree: “The pipe is a smoking device that consists of a tube with a mouthpiece on one end and a bowl on the other. Anyone who has studied the history of pipes in depth, however, would say that this definition is shallow and bland because this complicated smoker’s utensil, expressed in a variety of formats around the world, defies a simple generic definition” and “…humans chose to inhale this smoke in a device fashioned out of crude materials that would eventually bear the name ‘pipe.’” (“What Is a Smoking Pipe?,” encyclopedia.com). From Charles E. Orser, Encyclopedia of Historical Archaeology (2002): “Smoking pipes consist of two major elements: the bowl and the stem.”
Historically, the first smoking pipes were supposedly found in Egypt around 2000 B.C., and the first found in Europe were dated to around 500 B.C., but this essay is not about when or where smoking pipes were first used or who invented the first pipe, but when and where the word pipe originated. What name was given to those prehistoric utensils? Early accounts noted that explorers observed First Americans drinking or sucking tobacco. This is John Sparke’s account of Sir John Hawkins’ second voyage to Venezuela, Columbia and Florida in 1565: “The Floridians when they travell have a kind of herbe dryed, which with a cane, and an earthen cup in the end, with fire, and the dried herbs put together do sucke thro the cane the smoke thereof…” “The Pipe as History Tells of It” (The United Shield, September and October, 1921) is a more informed explanation. It quotes William Harrison, Chronologie (1588): In 1573, “The taking in of the smoke of the Indian herbe called Tobacco, by an instrument formed like a little ladell, whereby it passeth from the mouth into the head and stomach, is gretlie taken up and used in England.” Alfred Dunhill comments: “In English literature, according to the New English Dictionary, the word ‘pipe’ in the sense of ‘tobacco pipe’ appears for the first time in 1594, but in 1564 John Sparke, who accompanied John Hawkins on the voyage to the Indies and Florida, described a pipe without being able to put a name to it” (The Pipe Book). A German compendium from 1589 described the practice of smoking as receiving smoke through a funnel into the mouth. “Pipe is also a popular machine used in the smoaking of tobacco” (E. Chambers, Cylopædia: Or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, 1738).
“When the Spaniards visited this island [San Domingo] in the early years of the sixteenth century, they found the people inhaling the fumes of burning tobacco though a double pipe which was inserted in the nostrils. The ‘pipe’ was of narrow diameter and Y-shaped, the arms of the Y being sufficiently close together to be held in the nostrils with comfort, while the leg of the instrument was held in the fumes of tobacco which were thus drawn up into the nose and inhaled. The ‘pipe’ was called by the natives ‘tabaco’” (William George Freeman and Stafford Edwin Chandler, Cash Crop to Cash Co. The History of Tobacco and Smoking, 2014).
“For when the early colonists in Canada saw the Indians performing the strange operation of smoking ‘with a hollow piece of stone or wood like a pipe,’ as Jacques Cartier has it, they merely gave to the native tobacco-pipe the name of the French musical instrument it resembled. Now changes of sound and of sense like this of the English word pipe must have been in continual operation in hundreds of languages where we have no evidence to follow them by, and where we probably may never obtain such evidence” (Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture, 1871). According to The Introduction to the Study of the Pipe Rolls (1884): “The etymology of the word ‘Pipe’ remains a subject of discussion to the present day amongst antiquaries.” If I dig deeper, would I find the evidence that antiquaries could not?
In Peter Lund Simmons, A Dictionary of Trade Products, Commercial, Manufacturing, and Technical Terms (1858) are many tobacco-related terms, such as tobacco-pipe maker, tobacco-pouch, tobacco-jar, etc., but tobacco pipe is not among them. I searched pipe and found elaborate definitions for pipe-case, pipe-clay, pipe-manufacturer; as to pipe, there is this: “a tube for smoking.”
Now to the etymological investigation. Almost one-third of English’s vocabulary can be traced to the Norman Conquest of 1066, but pipe is not one of those words. Pipe comes from the Vulgar Latin pipa, a tube-shaped musical instrument. “Let us take by way of illustration the various meanings of the word pipe. This word goes back for its origin to the Latin pipare, a verb of imitative origin from the peeping of a bird. From this verb was formed the noun pipa, applied originally to an instrument that made the sound named by the verb, usually a tubular wooden instrument. From this last meaning radiate out the meanings: (1) pipe of an organ; (2) gas-pipe, stove-pipe, etc.; (3) the cell in a bee-hive used by the queen bee; (4) a tube of clay used in smoking, and, by metonymy, pipe for pipeful; (5) a wine measure; (6) pipe colloquial for windpipe; (7) plural, pipes for bagpipes; (8) a spool (as of thread), obsolete; (9) various special meanings in hairdressing, in dressmaking, in engineering, and in metallurgy” (George Harley McKnight, English Words and Their Background, 1923). “The musical sense of pipa passed into all the Romance and Teutonic languages, but it is in English that the other derived senses are by far the most numerous. Fr. pipe is now little used, except in the sense of tobacco-pipe. This may have developed from the general idea of tube, but I fancy it was originally a witticism, the smoking implement being compared to a musical instrument held in the mouth. Otherwise we could hardly explain the similar use of Ger. pfeife, which never acquired the general meaning of tube and is used only of a flute or whistle and a tobacco-pipe” (Ernest Weekley, Words Ancient and Modern, 1926).
“An Englishman would hardly guess from the present pronunciation and meaning of the word pipe what its origin was; yet when he compares it with the Low Latin pipa, French pipe, pronounced more like our word peep, to chirp, and meaning such a reed-pipe as shepherds play on, he then sees how cleverly the very sound of the musical pipe has been made into a word for all kinds of tubes, such as tobacco-pipes and water-pipes … For all we know multitudes of our ordinary words may have thus been made from real sounds, but have now lost beyond recovery the traces of their first expressiveness” (Henry Drummond, Lowell Lectures on the Ascent of Man, 1904).
“The history of three words for tobacco-pipe, chibouk, calumet, and our pipe, points to a similar origin. Chibouk comes from Central Asia, where it meant originally a herdsman’s flute. Calumet in the dialect of Normandy (from Latin calamus) is the name for a shepherd’s pipe, and was applied to the smoking-instrument of the Red Indians by the earliest colonists of Canada. Our pipe was once used with the same meaning” (J. M. Edmonds, An Introduction to Comparative Philology for Classical Students, 1906).
Pipe has been used in civil engineering, mining, science, anatomy, and computer programming. In UNIX operating systems, it means to pass information from one program process to another. Search and you find the verb: “to decorate food, especially a cake, with thin lines of icing.” To pipe is to call together or alert the crew, make a call, or signal the arrival aboard or the departure of someone by sounding a boatswain’s pipe. In The Slang Dictionary (John Camden Hotten, 1869): “PIPE, to follow or dog a person, to shed tears or bewail, to traverse his plans, to take a rise out of him.” The idiom “take pipe,” euphemistically means to kill oneself. To pipe means to engage in sexual intercourse, to talk, to weep (pipe an eye), and have a pipe at her. In Rap, it means penis. In cannabis-speak, “A ‘piece’ is a catchall term for a pipe or other crafted smoking device.” It’s an acronym meaning Private Investment in Public Equity. Pipe is a polysemous word that has several markedly different, unrelated meanings and homonyms.
Arthur Machen (pseud, Leolinus Siluriensis), The Anatomy of Smoking (1884) offers this convoluted definition: “A pipe, then, is a thing instrumental to our participation in the energy developed by tobacco in the state of positive existence. …So that if we find by investigation that a ‘thing-for-smoking-tobacco’ has always been named a ‘pipe,’ and is called so now, then we determine that the word ‘pipe’ expresses the primary, essential, and common meaning of a ‘thing-for-inhaling-tobacco.’” “The laborer engaged in laying a water-main and smoking his ‘T.D.’ [Timothy Dexter/Thomas Dormer clay pipe] at the same time may be thought to have both meanings of the word pipe equally present to his mind; yet he will seldom hesitate as to what is meant if the ‘boss’ tells him that ‘the pipe is broken’” (James Bradstreet Greenough, Words and Their Ways in English Speech, 1901).
U.S. patents typically include the term “smoking apparatus” or a “pipe-like smoking device.” It’s probably important to use the term tobacco pipe when filing for a patent to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. (The Canadian Patent Office standard is “tobacco pipe.”) The Federal Trade Commission strives for specificity in that its tariff reports have used either the term “tobacco pipes of wood” and “tobacco-smoking pipe.” The U.S. Government Dictionary of Occupational Titles uses the term “smoking pipe,” as in “smoking pipe industry,” and “tobacco,” as in “tobacco industry”; there is no occupational title for “pipe” or “tobacco pipe.” The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms defines pipe as “smoking tobacco type.”
Some prefer to use the term smoking pipe or, in the olden days, “a pipe of smoak.” Odd, indeed, that on its website, tobaccopipes.com offers both “Smoking Pipes & Tobacco Pipes.” Also peculiar is Wikipedia’s wording of its definition of a smoking pipe: “A smoking pipe is used to inhale the smoke of a burning substance; the most common is a tobacco pipe…” Is smoking pipe a synonym for pipe and for tobacco pipe? Is there a difference? Yunan Klaus seems to know the answer: “Smoking pipes are called…smoking pipes” (quora.com). And, for another viewpoint, I add: “It may perhaps be added here that I use the word «smoking pipe» and not «tobacco pipe», as these pipes are also used in some places for smoking hemp” (Peter E. Raper, Voices Past and Present, 2020).
Henry Bradley (The Making of English, 2013): “The two processes, of generalization and specialization, are often illustrated in the history of one and the same word. We have seen how the word pipe, meaning originally a certain instrument of music, developed the general sense of ‘a thing of tubular shape.’ When the smoking of tobacco was introduced, people said that the smoke was drawn through a pipe…” is an explanation accepted on faith, not fact.
“’Pipe’” orients us to the pipe in its totality, not just as seen from here or there, filled or unfilled, smoked or unsmoked, turned over or let be. This feature of words has a further consequence. Though as a speaker of English I’ve said the word many times and though over the course of history other English speakers have said it countless times, there is but one single word, ‘pipe,’ and it refers to one and the same thing in all of these instances (setting aside other uses, such as pipes to carry water or pipes to play music). To paraphrase Husserl, the word pipe gives us something somewhat different, a new perspective on the thing; every instance of the word ‘pipe’ for smoking is identical in its reference. In this sense, the word presents an ideal object” (Chad Engelland, Phenomenology, 2020).
Unfortunately, my quixotic, head-scratching investigation yielded nothing concrete as to exactly how the word pipe entered our lexicon, so after searching for an historically-logical answer, the following three passages—each slightly different—offer a plausible explanation.
Take as an example the word pipe. It seems to have been originally an imitative word, signifying the simple musical instrument whose sound was imitated in Anglo-Saxon pip, as it still is in French pipe, and Italian pipa. Thence it came to be used also to denote the tube through which the sacramental wine was sucked up. … Europeans beheld the natives of America drawing smoke of tobacco through an instrument which, as they said at first, was ‘like a pipe’; and when this instrument became more familiar to themselves, they simply gave it the name of pipe (“English Dictionaries,” Littell’s Living Age, December, 1873).
The aforementioned McKnight offered this:
Pipe is supposed to be an onomatopoetic creation made in imitation of the sound of a young bird. The word was applied to a musical instrument that made this sound. It then became generalized to mean ‘a thing of tubular form,’ such as ‘lead pipe.’ In later times the word has become specialized in turn to the meaning ‘tobacco pipe.’
And Paul E. Poitras, “The French Briar Pipe and the Great Popularity It Has Attained” (Tobacco, July 26, 1913) is the only explanation found in a tobacco industry trade journal:
Probably every smoker has asked himself at one time or another why a pipe is called a ‘pipe.’ It is easily explained. Archeologists have discovered clay and iron pipes, dating from the Roman period. These were called pipa, a Latin word meaning ‘tube’ or ‘reed.’ A curious coincidence is that, in nearly all languages, its extraction is derived from the same origin: in French and English pipe; Spanish and Italian pipa; German origin, peiffe and phifa; Holland, piip; Danish, pibe; Swedish, pipa; we also see it in the old Scottish term of piob. The Turkish name itself, tchibouq, has its origin in the old Tartar idiom which signifies reed; the last, but not the least, the calumet of the American Indians. Calumet, the name adopted by the English language, was given by the French who in turn took it from calamellus, diminutive of calamus, a Latin word also meaning reed.
In the absence of an evidentiary-based interpretation, any of these three explanations will suffice. Each is an adequate, plausible description of “the how,” but not the “when.” My question asked … but, unfortunately, not answered!
Zigzagging is the term for divergence and convergence, meaning situations where the source language has doublets, two words meaning the same thing, but often with a connotational difference. There is a discrete, connotational difference, a fine line between what is understood to be a tobacco pipe (e.g., clay, porcelain, meerschaum, wood, and corn cob) and the word pipe. The former is specific in that it is tobacco that is customarily smoked, and the latter is a collective term for any kind of pipe, regardless of format, material, country of origin, or the substance smoked.
Through time and usage, at least in the western world, pipe, tobacco pipe and, less so, smoking pipe, have come to mean the same thing. The three terms are ubiquitous, synonymous, and interchangeable, but I would submit that it lends clarity for anyone unfamiliar with our argot to add the adjectival modifier, “tobacco” or “smoking” to pipe. Alan Juffs agrees: “An example of the importance of context is clear in a sentence such as ‘He took out his pipe and began to play’, where the meaning of pipe is only clearer when the second half of sentence is read, and the interpretation of pipe as a smoking instrument becomes much less probable. Adding the phrase a beautiful melody would confirm the ‘instrument’ interpretation” (Alan Juffs, Aspects of Language Development in an Intensive English Program, 2020). Fran Colman reinforces this notion: “Whether the latter [pipe] is to be interpreted as ‘tobacco-pipe’, ‘water-pipe’, ‘boatswain’s whistle’, or as ‘one of the tubes of an organ’ is determined by context and situation” (Fran Colman, The Grammar of Names in Anglo-Saxon England, 2014). Pipe is universally understood when its typology is identified, e.g., egg, lovat, Canadian, etc., or when describing the various mediums, e.g., clay, meerschaum, briar, etc.
Oliver La Farge notes: “Nowadays there are some subjects that one can hardly discuss usefully without taking half an hour first to agree on the meaning of certain common words” (The Man with the Calabash Pipe. Some Observations, 2011). I am convinced that pipers can uniformly agree in much less than 30 minutes that the three terms essentially mean the same thing.
What’s in a name? Shakespeare answered his own question in Romeo and Juliet: “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.” So, from Shakespeare to you, was this etymological excursion “Much Ado About Nothing”? Was this lengthy treatise informative or just a distinction without a difference? Had I made a mountain out of a molehill? Was it TMI? Was it a waste of your time to read? I’d be very interested in your response.