What is etymology, and why are you excavating it?

Etymology is like the archeology of a language (definition: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history).

In this series of posts, we’re going to look at some of the English phrases, like ‘at full tilt’, ‘toe the line’, ‘when push comes to shove’ that are commonly used, and have an interesting history – and that people often get wrong.

turnpike‘Coming down the pike’ can be used to indicate something coming to prominence, up-and-coming, making itself noticed. I’ve also seen it used as a warning phrase, e.g. ‘something big’s coming down the pike – better get ready.’

A common mistake with this one is ‘coming down the pipe’, which possibly came into being as the word ‘pike’ became less and less common.

According to Grammarist, usage of the word pike originated in the U.S.A. in the early 19th century, and the earliest known instances of ‘coming down the pike’ appeared around 1900. However, the word pike, or turnpike, has become increasingly rarer, mostly replaced by ‘toll road’ or ‘highway’ – ‘motorway’ in other English dialects – and so many people have slipped into using ‘pipe’ for ‘pike’, most likely because they know what ‘pipe’ means and are a lot less certain of ‘pike’.

Examples of ‘coming down the pike’:

  • With the budget report out next week, we’re looking at a lot of questions coming down the pike…
  • Jim McClaffee is the biggest thing to come down the pike since Bob Dylan!

This phrase is fairly common, although not exactly well-known, and ‘down the pipe’, as mentioned above, is probably its most common misspelling. Pretty much every source that mentioned this phrase indicated it originated in US English, although I have heard it occasionally used in the UK.

This would be a really simple base phrase to adapt to pretty much any fantasy or sci-fi world; after all, everyone has to get from place to place somehow. For example, substitute ‘skyway’ for ‘pike’…and there you are, brand new, relatable idiom.

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