Q From Rosemarie Wilson: The other morning I told my husband that when it came to snoring, compared to him I was a piker. Then, as we often do, we had a rousing discussion of the possible etymology of the term piker. Consulting the dictionary, we found more meanings than a bird has feathers, including a relationship to pikey, which I personally don’t agree with. In the States, it means “cheap,” but I couldn’t find a satisfactory explanation.
A How good to learn that your household starts the day with an etymological investigation. Others please copy.
As you’ve already discovered, there are many meanings of piker, including the variation you’ve rightly disregarded, the derogatory English regional slang term pikey. That comes from piker for a tramp or vagabond who was always on the road, who travelled the turnpikes, the one-time toll roads of England. Turnpike derives from the long, swivelling pole (one sense of pike) that barred the road at every tollhouse.
The consensus among dictionaries is that your sense of piker does come from pike, but from the verb, not the noun. If somebody piked himself in late medieval times he had furnished himself with a pilgrim’s staff — yet another sort of pike. Figuratively to pike oneself meant to travel on foot, go away or run away.
It may be, though the evidence is sparse, that through the idea of running away the verb came to suggest withdrawing from a situation through excessive caution. In the US in the 1850s it began to be attached to small-time gambling and a piker was a man who made very small bets, often hedging them. This is the first example on record:
Piker is a man who plays very small amounts. Plays a quarter, wins, pockets the winnings, and keeps at quarters; and never, if he can help it, bets on his winnings.
Vocabulum; or, The Rogue’s Lexicon, by George W Matsell, 1859.
Some reference books suggest a completely different source. A piker in the US was also a poor white migrant from the southern states. The first pikers were migrants to California, around the time of the 1849 Gold Rush, from Pike County, Missouri. (The county was named after Zebulon Pike, the soldier and explorer who also gave his name to Pikes Peak in Colorado.) This version of the term came to mean a worthless, lazy, good-for-nothing person.
The subsequent history of piker in the US has interwoven these two strands so they are now hard to separate. Piker became a disparaging term with several senses, describing a person as a shirker, stingy, cowardly, a cheat or insignificant. Your phrase a piker compared to ..., for a person who pales by comparison with another, came from this last sense but isn’t often included in dictionaries. All these may be on the way out: they don’t seem to be known to younger people.
For the sake of completeness, perhaps I ought to mention that in Australia and New Zealand piker has yet another sense, of a person who agrees with enthusiasm to take part in some social event, but who later pulls out, often at the last minute and at some inconvenience to others. It is probable that it evolved independently from the old sense of a person who runs away.
Thanks to Douglas Wilson for his help with this expression.