Posted by: Jack Henry | January 16, 2020

Editor’s Corner: Pipes and Barns

Dear Editrix,

Where do these two phrases come from?

  • Pipe dream
  • Barn burner

Ms. B

Hello, Ms. B. and thank you for the question! I was surprised at the answers. I think you will find them interesting!

From the Phrase Finder website, here is information on pipe dreams:

A “pipe dream" is an unrealistic hope or fantasy.

The phrase “pipe dream" is an allusion to the dreams experienced by smokers of opium pipes.

Opiates were widely used by the English literati in the 18th and 19th centuries. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was one of the best-known users, and it would be difficult to claim that the imagery in surreal works like Kubla Khan owed nothing to opium. [KC – “In Xanadu did
Kubla Khan/a stately pleasure-dome decree…”] Lewis Carroll, although not known to be an opium user himself, makes clear allusions to drug use in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has his hero Sherlock Holmes visit an opium den—although that was for research rather than consumption.

It’s strange then that “pipe dream” comes from none of these sources but has an American origin. The early references to the phrase all originate from in or around Chicago. The earliest I have found is from The Chicago Daily Tribune, December 1890:

"It [aerial navigation] has been regarded as a pipe-dream for a good many years."

And from the Grammarist, we have this history of the phrase barn burner:

A barn burner is an event that is extremely exciting, or a person who is extremely exciting. Typically, barn burner is a term that is applied to intense sporting events. An American phrase, barn burner was first coined as one word, barnburner, to describe a certain type of politician in the mid-1800s. This early use of barnburner described someone who, when faced with a barn infested with rats, was willing to burn down the barn in order to get rid of the rats. American wildcat oilmen were the next to use the word barnburner, to describe a gusher oil well. Today, barn burner is almost always rendered as two words, hyphenated when used as an adjective, and is often augmented with the word real, as in a real barn burner.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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