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The meaning and origin of the expression: Pipe dream

Pipe dream

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Pipe dream'?

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A 'pipe dream' is an unrealistic hope or fantasy.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Pipe dream'?

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

Pipe dreamOpiates 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. 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."

The first printed piece that associates the phrase with opium smoking is from The Fort Wayne Gazette, September 1895:

"There are things taking place every day in Chicago which are are devoid of rational explanation as the mysterious coinings of the novelist's brain. Newspaper men hear of them, but in the rush for cold, hard facts, the 'pipe stories', as queer and unexplainable stories are called, are at a discount. Were it not for this the following incident, which can be verified by the word of several reputable men, would have long ago received the space and attention it merits instead of being consigned to the waste-basket as the 'pipe dream' of an opium devotee."

[The piece goes on to describe an incredible story, apparently believed by the reporter, of a mystic incident in which a man foretells in detail the suicide of another man. It rather makes one wonder what the reporter had been smoking]

In his 1896 play, "Artie - A Story of the Streets and Town", the American columnist and playwright George Ade penned this line:

"But then I was spinnin' pipe dreams myself, tellin' about how much I lose on the board and all that."

It seems clear that that Ade would have expected his audience to have prior knowledge of it. He goes to no effort to explain it in the play and the meaning wouldn't have been clear otherwise. So, its reasonable to assume the expression 'pipe dream', with the meaning we currently give it, would have been in common use in the USA in the late 19th century.

'Pipe dream' wasn't known in England until a few years later and it is probable that it was introduced there by the American novellist Bettina von Hutten, who took up residency in London. In her 1904 novel Pam she includes the line:

Look at the sea, and tell me if, in your wildest pipe-dream, you ever saw anything lovelier.

Von Hutton had a considerable amount of quiet time to consider her choice of home - she was put under travel restrictions for the duration of the First World War as she had a German ex-husband.

See other phrases that were coined in the USA.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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