“Give [someone] the pip”

After all these years, it’s rare for me to come across an American using a Britishism I was previously unaware of. But that’s what happened when I was reading the New York Times the other day. Theater critic Ben Brantley, reviewing a revival of the musical “Sweet Charity,” alliteratively noted, “Peppiness gives me the pip.”

Actually, “pip” is one of the first Britishisms I was ever aware of, upon reading the Conan Doyle story “The Five Orange Pips” when I was a kid. (The word I would use for the seeds in an orange is “seed.”) “Gives me the pip” was a new expression to me, one that definitely had a British sound to it. And Britishism it is. It derives from the poultry disease known as “the pip.” The Oxford English Dictionary and Green’s Dictionary of Slang reveal having or getting the pip was used to mean feeling depressed or out of sorts starting in the 1830s, and “giving [someone] the pip,” meaning to annoy or irritate, in 1896.

All of the many citations in Green’s are from British sources, including no fewer than five from the quintessential Englishman P.G. Wodehouse, ranging from 1910’s Psmith in the City (“That’s the sort of thing which gives me the pip”) to 1960’s Jeeves in the Offing (“It would be fatal to risk giving her the pip in any way”).

27 thoughts on ““Give [someone] the pip”

  1. For us Brits, “The Pips” refers to Greenwich Time Signal which is used by the BBC for the “top of the hour” time signature, as used on BBC Radio 4 (also on the TV News channel: Google “BBC News start up theme”).**

    See also the Speaking Clock (aka TIM), which amazingly still has millions of weekly usages. This marks the actual time read out by three “pips”:

    “At the third stroke, the time from BT will be (hour) (minute) and (second) seconds”

    ** – due to the way digital radio works, the pips only mark the exact time on analogue radio AM/FM.

    1. ** Don’t forget Long Wave. Allegedly, the standing instruction to our Royal Navy nuclear submarine commanders is to tune to BBC Radio 4 198khz at 6am GMT, and if they don’t hear the pips followed by the Today programme they are to assume that western civilisation has fallen.

  2. I do know of an earlier reference in US English. In the 1961 juvenile delinquent movie “The Choppers,” a group of young car thieves use a chicken truck for cover. At one point in the film, one of the leather-jacketed thugs says, “Nah, they got the pip, that’s why they squawk.”
    Obviously, this is a reference to the original meaning of the word as a poultry disease, but apparently it is/was in use in the United States as well.

  3. And then there’s “There go the pips,” meaning the multiple notes that signal that the person you’ve been talking to on the phone has hung up before you have.

    1. @Tim “There go the pips” – actually, it refers to when you’ve run out of money on an very, very old fashioned payphone. The “pips” here mean “insert more money”.

      Another related telephone usage: “Toodle pip!” meaning “goodbye”

      1. Also pip pip.
        Urban Dictionary says: ‘Mock-pompous English greeting which conveys jocular familiarity on the recipient. Sometimes used in conjunction with “What ho!” and “Old bean” for maximum effect. Derived from PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster.’

      2. Thank you for the explanation. I’m American and I’m watching Peter Kay laughing my butt off. I do have to look up some of his british slang and pips was one of them. He was talking about phone calls when he mentions pips and know I understand the joke better.

  4. Hmm.. ‘gives me the pips’.. No, too ineffectual. I prefer the term ‘screaming hebejeebies’, its got more guts to it. 😉

    1. But the screaming heebie-jeebies (spellings will vary!) is a different thing, surely? Having the pip means being a bit browned off by or fed up with something or somebody, while having the s-h-js means being in a state of screeching panic or horror – or that’s how I’ve always understood it.

      1. I would agree with you Catherine Rose. I did think however that Robynne Black was being humorous?

      2. You are right of course Catherine, its just that from a Kiwi perspective ‘Having the pip’ is almost an invitation to provoke a bolder response similar to ‘being a bit miffed’.. Oh.. I should never have read those Secret Seven and Famous Five books when I was younger!

    1. I hesitate to write this but many years ago, I was an anaesthetist on a NATO exercise. A U.K. Sergeant challenged me about a patient. I said he was a Captain because he had 3 pips on his shoulder. The Sergeant said “only fruit have pips. Officers have stars!”
      As far as I’m concerned, they will always be “pips!”…

  5. Crikey. Now there’s a phrase off the ark. Haven’t heard, “gives me the pip” used in every-day conversation in more than 30 years, possibly getting on for 40 and those people that I remember using it unselfconsciously were generally well past middle age. Most current expressions expressing the same sentiment are considerably cruder.

  6. As I’ve just been watching the new Dirk Gently series, here’s a quote from 2002’s The Salmon Of Doubt:

    A breezy Californian .. was standing in the bright sunshine
    and answering questions, Dirk quickly worked out, about the approaching meteor. He called the meteor Toodle Pip.
    “Toodle Pip?” asked his interviewer, the BBC’s California correspondent.
    “Yeah. We call it Toodle Pip because anything it hits, you could pretty much say good-bye to.”

  7. I’d have thought that the source of the expression “gives me the pip” was most likely to be the disease of poultry that is called “pip” (it refers to a hardening of the tongue caused by breathing through the beak). In Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Thirty-nine Steps” a timid-looking member of the music hall audience tries several times to ask Mr Memory “What causes pip in poultry?”

  8. My dad who was an army major often used the expression ” it gives/enough to give me the pip”

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