An Interesting Idiom: “Coming Down the Pike”

One of my favorite subjects is the origins of words and idioms. I really can’t get enough of it, and the more random the origin, the better. So I was delighted, while reading Beautiful Jim Key (review coming soon), to get an interesting little linguistic insight into the term “coming down the pike.”

It’s still a fairly common phrase (particularly among middle managers who like to say things like, “There are great things coming down the pike if we can keep blue-skying it and thinking outside the box”), and it’s relatively straightforward. Though here in the west you don’t hear much about “turnpikes” and “pike” isn’t really a common word for a roadway any longer, it’s generally understood that “coming down the pike” is pretty much the same thing as “coming down the road.” Though there are some interesting alternate interpretations if you look out there on the web, including “Pike’s Peak, driving down back in the day with only mechanical brakes.” (Uh, what?) My favorite alternate insane explanation is that it might have something to do with the way a decapitated head will slide down the pike upon which it is impaled as the head decays. (Uh, WHAT?)

James Scott's "On the Pike" two-step was inspired by the fair.

The most interesting explanation — but perhaps a flawed one — is the one I first saw in Beautiful Jim Key, though it pops up in other places as well. In 1904, the city of St. Louis held the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, one of the massive World’s Fairs that were so popular at the time. (Between Beautiful Jim Key and The Devil in the White City, I’m learning an awful lot about fairs lately.) Over 19.5 million people attended the exposition and strolled along one of the 1200-acre site’s major features, a massive pedestrian corridor known as “The Pike.” The Pike was a 90 foot wide, mile-long, brick-paved expanse bordered by over 50 extravagant attractions, with water slides, miniature railways, recreations of exotic foreign villages, an aviary, a 40,000-gallon deep-sea-diving tank, a wild west show, a trained animal circus, and much, much more. Because of the costs involved, it was known as “The Ten Million Dollar Pike,” and that was only one part of the exposition. Though the World’s Fairs would eventually die out — due in part to the constant delays and incredible cost overruns that dogged pretty much every fair ever, but also because of the rise of attractions like Disneyland — at the time they were just about the most incredible, mind-blowing thing you could imagine, like a cross between the world’s largest carnival and the world’s most awesome natural history museum. Supposedly visitors were so impressed by the whole affair, and the wide array of attractions on offer, that it was often said that “there is always something new coming down The Pike.”

Visitors on The Pike at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition

True fact? Perhaps not. According to The Word Detective, “coming down the pike” was first used in print in 1901, before the St. Louis World’s Fair.

As I said, “coming down the pike,” meaning in a figurative sense “appearing on the scene now or in the near future,” first appeared in print in 1901. The “pike” is, as you implied, simply short for “turnpike,” a road or highway where a toll is charged for passage. The “pike” in “turnpike” originally referred to the barrier (“pike” being a very old word for “spear”) which was raised or turned aside to allow the traveler to proceed once the fee had been paid. As turnpikes tended to be major roads, it was possible to see the approach of a traveler well in advance, and if someone new arrived in town, it was probable that he or she had “come down the pike” to get there.

(“Down the pike” is also an often-misspoken idiom, as you’ll often hear people say “down the pipe” instead. Tim Kowal has a really interesting blog about how, considering the new landscape of the way information and ideas travel, “down the pipe” may be the more accurate and appropriate expression in these modern times.)

Though The Word Detective and others are pretty insistent about the invention of the St. Louis story by travel agents and fanciful tour guides, at its root the phrase applies to both. The Pike in St. Louis was, after all, a roadway down which visitors traveled, coming down the pike… which may be the reason why The Pike was named The Pike in the first place. It all illustrates one of my favorite things about etymology and idioms (idiomology?): that the paths language takes from point A to point B — and the subjective truths about them — have a way of traveling a very convoluted path (down the pike, if you will) into the present.

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5 thoughts on “An Interesting Idiom: “Coming Down the Pike”

  1. My bet is that the 1901 usage of “down the pike” went unnoticed by 99.9% of the general population, and only became popular because of its later association with the St. Louis Fair.

    As an aside, I happen to own a watercolor painted by my grandfather in 1915 which portrays one of the lagoons in Forest Park. In the background are silhouettes of some of the buildings left over from the Fair. Can’t see any suggestion of a pike, though ;-)

    • I don’t know, the suggestion is that it was probably in common use before it was in print, but it’s hard to say. I do wonder why they would have named the place “The Pike” in the first place, though, if the phrase wasn’t already common.

      I was in San Francisco awhile back and visited the really sweet science museum they have there, and there’s a park next door with some pretty grand Romanesque columns and things, which when I googled it later I found were apparently left over from one of those big expositions. Until I read The Devil in the White City, I’d been aware of the World’s Fairs but didn’t realize there were so many, or exactly the scale that they happened on. It’s pretty interesting stuff. :)

  2. “Down the pike” is indeed an interesting phrase. Did you see the movie Snatch where the character portrayed by Brad Pitt was referred to as a “Pikey”? It’s a pejorative term used in the United Kingdom to refer to the Irish, Gypsies, and other travelers.

    • Yeah, I’ve seen the film and heard the insult before… apparently it has the same root etymology — pike/piker/pikey being somebody who travels the turnpike/highway, thus a traveler. Although these days it seems to be used sort of interchangeably with “chav,” whether the person in question is a gypsy or not.

  3. Pingback: Bright Strange Things | All of Life’s Pressing Questions, Direct From the Internet

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