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What Is a Pipe Dream?

Many of the poets of the Romantic Era in Britain believed the dreams and altered mental states affected their work, but it was in America that the term “pipe dream” was eventually coined.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
August 31, 2017

When a hospital worker in Massachusetts chose the lucky ticket in the Powerball jackpot last week, she won more than $750 million, the biggest jackpot in US history, and she said, “My pipe dream came true.” After reading her statement, Robert Mittendorf on Twitter encouraged me to write about the term “pipe dream” because it has an interesting origin. Thanks, Robert!

It seems that “pipe dream” was first used in the late 1800s to imply that something was like the hallucinatory dreams that people had when they smoked opium, which was usually done with a pipe. Back then, opium was mostly considered a useful medicine, and it didn’t have the negative connotations and restrictions that it has today. There were even opium products, such as Syrup of Poppies, which were given to children even though many babies died when they were given too much. Yikes.

pipe dream

Opium pipes had especially long stems and were sometimes called “saxophones,” “gongs,” and, relevant to our topic today, “dream sticks.”

Many of the poets of the Romantic Era in Britain, such as Percy Shelly, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, John Keats, and Thomas de Quincey took opium and believed the dreams and altered mental states affected their work. But it was in America that the term “pipe dream” was eventually coined.

The earliest example of the phrase appearing in print listed in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the “Chicago Tribune” in 1890 and reads “[Aerial navigation] has been regarded as a pipe-dream for a good many years.”

I like the second example better though because it sounds more dream-like. It comes from the novel “Pam,” written by Bettina Riddle von Hutten in 1904: “Just look at the sea, and tell me if, in your wildest pipe-dreams, you ever saw anything lovelier.”

Today, a “pipe dream” is usually something that is a fanciful idea or plan that is unlikely to actually happen—like buying the winning ticket in a $750 million lottery.

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