"Pipe Down"

Posted by ESC on August 11, 1999

In Reply to: "Pipe Down" posted by Bruce Kahl on August 10, 1999

: as used to ask someone to be quiet.

I am beginning to think that all expressions are either from Shakespeare or the Bible, or are nautical terms.

Why You Say It: The Fascinating Stories Behind over 600 Everyday Words and Phrasesby Webb Garrison (Rutledge Hill Press) gives this explanation of "pipe down":

"Big sailing vessels required large crews, since most work was done by hand. Noise of winds and waves made it difficult to transmit orders by shouting. So the boatswain used a special pipe whose notes could usually be heard even in a storm.

When a master wished to give a special instructions or give a crew an opportunity to voice complaints, the boatswain piped 'All hands on deck.' Another signal was used to send men to their quarters below deck. Sometimes a harsh captain would break off discussion and signal the boatwain to pipe the crew down. Failure to obey could be interpreted as mutiny, so rebellion was rare.

Long used literally in the lingo of the sea, the expression was adopted and modified at the U.S. Naval Academy. About 1890 it became customary for a man in his third or fourth year to command a plebe, "Pipe down!' Instead of being an order to go to quarters, this was a demand for silence, and today we treat it as slightly milder but nearly equivalent to 'Shut up!"