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What's coming down the turnpike? By Edwin Battistella on the OUPblog

What’s coming down the pike?

During the news coverage of the COVID pandemic, I enjoyed seeing Dr Anthony Fauci on television and hearing his old-school Brooklyn accent, still shining through in his late seventies in words like Pfizerbecausedatahere, and that.   

But my favorite expression to listen for was his use of “down the pike” to mean “in the future.” Fauci explained once that “you don’t see for days or weeks down the pike.” Another time he said “before you know it, two to three weeks down the pike, you’re in trouble.” Discussing vaccine testing he said “So we go into phase one, it’ll take about three months to determine if it’s safe. That’ll bring us three or four months down the pike.”

“Down the pike” is an expression I grew up hearing all the time in my home state of New Jersey. And, of course, many people say it besides Anthony Fauci. Joe Biden talks about how government and the private sector should “anticipate and respond to shortages that may be coming down the pike.” If you Google “down the pike” you’ll find it everywhere, even in New York Times headlines like “Is a Trans-Atlantic Pact Coming Down the Pike?” and (with an attempted pun) “Hydrogen Cars, Coming Down the Pike.” You can find occasional instances of things coming “up the pike,” and there is an early twentieth-century slang expression “hit the pike,” meaning “hit the road” or “leave.”

Not everyone is familiar with “down the pike.” Some mislearn it as the semantically plausible “down the pipe” rather than “down the pike.” It’s “down the pike,” but where does it come from?

I had assumed that “down the pike” had something to do with the New Jersey Turnpike, the 117-mile toll highway that runs from New York City to Delaware. The New Jersey Turnpike Authority was created in 1948 and the Turnpike itself was completed in 1951. It’s been collecting tolls ever since, along with the Garden State Parkway, which was completed in 1957.  

There are lots of turnpikes, however, and the word goes way back. The Oxford English Dictionary gives examples from the early 1400s. It originally meant “a spiked barrier fixed in or across a road or passage,” and was used as a defense against attacks by men on horseback.

Later turnpike became extended to the sense of a turnstile to block horses. Samuel Johnson offered this definition: “Turnpike… a cross of two bars armed with pikes at the end, and turning on a pin, fixed to hinder horses from entering.” By the late 1600s, the turnpike was a toll booth of sorts, and a late seventeenth-century Act of Parliament refers to “collecting the said [toll]… by setting up a Turnpike or otherwise.”

Turnpike, or the clipping pike, was often used to refer generally to roads in the nineteenth century, and the expression “coming down the pike” was another way of saying “coming down the road.”

By the late 1800s, figurative senses were emerging and taking hold. An 1898 story in the Dayton Herald had the line “Bowling, if dead, is the liveliest corpse that ever ’came down the pike’, as they say on the bowery.” The quote marks suggest that figurative “down the pike” was a newish expression at the time.

Pike was also used as a synonym for boardwalk or midway, and in 1903 the organizers of the St. Louis World’s Fair announced that the upcoming fair would call its promenade “The Pike,” to distinguish it from Chicago’s Midway. Perhaps St. Louis got the idea from Long Beach, California, which debuted a boardwalk amusement zone called “The Pike” even earlier—in 1902. In any event, St. Louis encouraged visitors to “Come Down the Pike,” and there was later a Broadway musical titled “Down the Pike” whose second act took place at the 1904 World’s Fair.

The figurative sense of “coming down the pike” took hold but remained sporadic in the early twentieth century. A 1905 Portland, Maine, newspaper talked about “nothing but anarchy coming down the pike” and “chaos coming down the pike.” A 1936 issue of the International Stereotypers’ and Electrotypers’ Union Journal which refers to “The fall election… coming down the pike.” Both examples are clearly oriented toward time and events rather than space.   

By the 1950s the sense of “coming down the pike” to mean happening in the future was increasingly common and it took off in the 1960s and 70s, after the completion of the Interstate Highway System.

With language, you never know what’s coming down the pike.

Featured image: the New Jersey Turnpike, 1992, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.5)

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