Pipe Down: Whistling Audio Signals

Hello, everyone. I hope you had a good long weekend. I know I did.

The phrase we’re going to talk about today is another which can trace its roots back to life on the ocean, specifically to the job of boatswain, or bosun.

The word boatswain comes from the Old English word batswegen, meaning boat, & the Old Norse word, sveinn, meaning servant. The modern-day job of one of these sailors is to oversee maintenance the hull, deck equipment & the operations which use that equipment. Some of these maintenance tasks include painting the hull, keeping the integrity of the wooden deck & testing out machinery. It was a full plate to have, even without factoring in the other routine duties which were shared with crew members.


A boatswain oversees cargo operations on a U.S. freighter.
(Photo courtesy of Randy C. Bunney, Great Circle Photography)

Alright, let’s roll back the clock to before the days of electricity aboard ships.

Back then, boatswains & their mates had even more to do. Since ships were powered by the wind, the duties of these men were extended to taking care of the sails & masts.

Imagine you’re working up in the rigging, which can tower over two hundred feet above the water, on the biggest ships. It’s very windy up there, so all you can hear are the sails flapping, the rigging snapping & the masts creaking. If your ship is in the midst of battle, you can add the sound of cannons fire to that. You look down & catch a glimpse of your boatswain as he yells up his orders, but you can’t hear him. You only see is his mouth moving. It’s definitely a problem that needs to be addressed. What’s the remedy?

One of these:


Photo used courtesy of Wikipedia user ThoKay.

That’s a boatswain’s pipe, or as some sailors called it, a “pippity-dippity.” That last part isn’t a joke; battle hardened sailors actually used that term. Anyway, when the pipe is used, it produces an absurdly loud, shrill whistle, which can be heard over the noises of shipboard life. While it’s largely used  symbolically alongside PA systems & in ceremonies today, in the days before modern vocal amplification, a system of sound signals was used to alert sailors to different orders, tasks, mealtimes & bedtime. The term “pipe down” originally referred to the signal which told the sailors to get below decks. For example, in his 1798 book, Advice to Commanders & Officers: Serving in the West Indies, on the Preservation of the Health of Seamen (because all books had unnecessarily long & specific titles back then), Dr. Leonard Gillespie writes, “At four o’clock, P.M. the hammocks should regularly be piped down.”

A lithograph of a boatswain c. 1820. (Image in Public Domain)

A lithograph of an old timey boatswain c. 1820.
(Image in Public Domain)

How does this relate to being quiet? Well, as with so many other expressions, it’s not 100% clear, but we have some ideas.

The ttrusty Phrase Finder site proposes that it may have links to sending sailors below decks when trouble among the crew started to break out. The author of the site cites this quotation from an April 1850 article in The Gettysburg Star & Banner:

‘I don’t care what happens to me now!’ wept Peter, going among the crew, with blood-shot eyes, as he put on his shirt. ‘I have been flogged once, and they may do it again, if they will. ‘Let them look out for me now’. ‘Pipe down!’ cried the Captain, and the crew slowly dispersed.

Now we know it was spoken on ships before it came ashore. However, we’re not sure how long it was part of maritime jargon.

Though a boatswain’s pipe is loud, “Pipe down” may have actually dealt with a lack of sound. In his blog, Not Yet Published, Shahan Cheong abandons the notion that it was used for sending men below decks. He suggests that “pipe down” refers to the boatswain refraining from using the whistle, especially before an impending battle, as its shrill call would travel across the water, potentially giving the ship’s position away. The phrase itself might have quite literally meant, “Put the pipe down; you’re being too loud.”

Over the course of this blog, I’ve learned that the beginnings of many of the expressions we use today have fallen by the wayside. “Pipe down” is no different. We know it can be drawn back to the shipboard position of boatswain & his pipe & that it was spoken before 1850. It was written prior to 1798. Unfortunately after using that, it starts to become a little gray. Once again, it’s up to you to decide what you think is correct.

I will leave you all at that. I hope you all have a wonderful rest of the week & I will see you in the same place next Monday. Now you know; you’re welcome.


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