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Pronounced /ˈnɪpəkɪn/Help with pronunciation

A famous English West Country song called the Barley Mow was once a favourite at the raucous celebrations that followed the completion of the barley harvest. An early verse in some versions is this:

We’ll drink it out of the nipperkin, boys,
Here’s a health to the barley-mow!
The nipperkin and the jolly brown bowl,
Here’s a health to the barley-mow, my brave boys,
Here’s a health to the barley-mow!

Because the size of the toast increased verse by verse, by reading it (or preferably singing it with beer in hand) you will get a good education in the old British names for units of volume, some still familiar, some defunct: gills, pints, quarts, pottles, gallons, ankers, hogsheads and pipes (this last was 126 American gallons, or old British wine gallons, roughly 475 litres). Most units were twice the size of the one before. At the end, the song goes quite out of control and speaks of wells, rivers and oceans.

The word could be used equally for the measure or for the container it was served in. There is some confusion about the actual size of a nipperkin, with various works recording or implying anything between half a pint and 1/32nd of a pint, but most agree that it was one-eighth of an English pint (or about 70ml). The song agrees with that measure, as the doubling-up sequence in a well-known version goes nipperkin, gill (quarter-pint), half-pint, pint.

Nipperkin was still around as the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth, but lasted little longer. At this period, it seems to have been commonest in Scotland, though it was still remembered in the West Country. There are a number of references to it in books of the period, as in The Dynasts by Thomas Hardy, published 1904-8 but set at the time of the Napoleonic wars: “I’d sooner have a nipperkin of our own real ‘Bristol milk’ than a mash-tub full of this barbarian wine!” [Bristol milk = sherry.]

Its name is so intimately tied to English and Scottish rural and domestic life that it comes as a mild shock to learn that the word is probably Dutch in origin and is related to the German and Dutch verbs nippen, to sip.

We still sometimes speak of taking a nip of spirits, often notionally for medicinal purposes, as a character did in The First Men in the Moon by H G Wells: “He recommended a nip of brandy, and set me the example, and presently I felt better.” Nip here is an abbreviation of nipperkin, in the looser sense of any small quantity. However, nip has some more specific senses: it’s a legal measure in Australia and New Zealand, of size 30ml; in the USA in particular it’s usually one-third of a local pint, a bottle size for high-alcohol beers like barley wine.

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Page created 14 May 2005