Thursday, January 29, 2009


The word piker has undergone a fitful series of starts and stops. Today in America, we take it to mean a parsimonious person, someone who will squeeze a penny until it bleeds.

In 1590, a piker was a pikeman, a soldier equipped with a pike. A pike was a weapon that sported a pointed steel head supported on a long wooden shaft. Until the 18th century, no respectable foot soldier would have gone to battle without one.

Piker in the sense of a stingy person (or a not-very-reputable person) had two separate starts. In England, piker was a regional derogatory term used abusively of a tramp or vagrant. It seems to have come from a term in southeastern England designating a traveller or a gypsy -- hence, someone considered disreputable or lowerclass, an early instance of trailerpark trash.

In America, Piker was a derogatory regional term that started in California and other Pacific states. It referred to a poor white migrant from the southern states, many of whom seem to have come from Pike County, Missouri. A letter written by one F. Buck in 1852 contained this line: “Unfortunately [Downieville, California] is cursed with the most degraded set of Irish squatters, Pike County Missourians, and mean Yankees.” OED

From there, it shifted to a timid gambler who wagered only small sums of money. He was a person who took no chances, someone who was considered cowardly and stingy.

SIDEBAR: A Piker Clerk

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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