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This turned up in my newspaper during our recent bad weather in an article that discussed the value of winter tyres. These grip better, it was said, because of the increased number of sipes in the tread. It not being a word in my vocabulary, some investigation seemed to be in order. This led me to an intriguing etymological puzzle.

It was easy enough to discover that, for tyre manufacturers, sipes are thin transverse slits in the tyre surface that help water disperse. My dictionaries say that the word started to be used in the 1950s. A search seemed to confirm this, as the earliest I could uncover was the following advertisement:

For your driving safety this winter have your tires trued and siped by one of our specialists. Siping provides you with better stops without skids and fosters starts on wet or icy roads.

Pampa Daily News (Texas) 20 Nov. 1953.

Those dictionaries that include sipe, including Chambers, say that it derives from the Old English sipian, for water that slowly oozes or soaks into the ground. We might say it means seep but that would be the error of defining a word in terms of itself, since seep is no more than an eighteenth-century respelling of sipe. There might seem to be a link with sip, but that’s Middle English and probably comes from a Germanic source allied to sup.

In the nineteenth century, sipe (or sype, cype or other forms) was mainly a dialect word of Scotland and northern England. The English Dialect Dictionary defined it expansively at the end of the nineteenth century as “to percolate slowly; to ooze, trickle, leak, drip”. It could also mean to extract the last drops from a container or drain a vessel to the dregs, so a siper could be a heavy drinker or a drunkard. In some parts of Scotland even today, to sipe clothes is to let them drip dry.

Sipe was taken to the US and is known in a few places, though to confuse unwary researchers it has been usually been said as “seep” (this may have been an English dialect pronunciation of the eighteenth century that led to the change in spelling in standard British English). The laws of Illinois and Mississippi, for example, still include it, referring in one place to “the unsanitary accumulation of sipe water or surface water”.

That might seem to be the whole story, but as I dug deeper into the history of tyre making, I repeatedly found a story online (see Wikipedia in particular) that attached sipe to a man who patented a way of making tyres with slits in the tread (United States Patent 1452099 of 1923, if you’d like to look it up). The man was John F Sipe. The references that mention him assume that sipe is an eponym.

These references say almost nothing about Mr Sipe, the exception being a story which is reproduced here:

Siping was invented and patented by John Sipe in the 1920s. Sipe worked in a slaughterhouse and grew tired of slipping on the wet floors. He found that cutting slits in the tread on the bottom of his shoes provided better traction than the uncut tread.

Wheel and Tire Performance Handbook, by Richard Newton, 2007. A rarer version of the story suggests that he was a sailor with a similar need.

Thanks to research by a reader from Oregon, I’ve learned that Mr Sipe was born in Pennsylvania in 1859 and had worked as a jeweller. By the time of the 1920 census he was living at 127 W 47th street in New York. In a passport application in 1902 he stated that he was a merchant, while the 1920 census lists him as a manufacturer of tires. In the decade before 1923 seven other patents — for vehicle wheels, springs and tyres — were awarded jointly with his son Harry E Sipe. These point to the Messrs Sipe being actively involved in the motor vehicle business.

His patent continues to be known in tyre manufacturing, since it is cited as prior art in every subsequent patent for methods of improving tyre traction, the first in 1936. However, the first patent to use sipe as a generic term is one filed in 1951, two years earlier than the first example I found in general printed works. The Sipe patent was discussed in detail in Inventions and their Management by Alf Keyser Berle and Lyon Sprague De Camp in 1937. The Wikipedia article on the Sperry Top-Sider boat shoe says that its inventor, Paul Sperry, used the ideas in the Sipe patent to create it. I’ve not been able to check the full text of Mr Sperry’s patent of 1939 to see if Mr Sipe’s work is credited there. However, it seems almost certain that Mr Sperry’s work has become conflated with that of Mr Sipe to produce the slaughterman or sailor story about the latter.

Though this fills in the background, it’s little help in identifying the provenance of the word in its tyre sense. Against its being an eponym is the absence of any printed record until a quarter century after Mr Sipe’s patent, even in the technical literature. In favour is the rarity of the English dialect term in the US and its sense of oozing or trickling, which isn’t appropriate for tyres, which must dispose of water quickly. To judge by the patent history, most of the work on mechanical siping of tyres has been done after the Second World War and it may be that the term evolved in the industry in the late 1940s and 1950s in parallel with the research work; certainly it becomes suddenly quite noticeable in the specialist press from the middle 1950s onwards. It may well have been around earlier but as the casual jargon of garage workers who hand-siped tyres in the way described in the 1953 advertisement.

As so often, we are left unsatisfied. We may never be able to resolve this intriguing coincidence of names.

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Page created 16 Feb 2013