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Q From Randa Massot: My British friend uses the wonderful word kip which in American translates to nap; would you happen to know the origin of that word?

A British people use kip to mean either a nap or a longer sleep; it can also mean the idea or act of sleeping, as in “Will you be quiet? I’m trying to get some kip in here!” It can also be a verb: “They kipped down for the night”.

It’s just possible that if British people knew more about its low- life origins they might not use it so much. The ultimate source is probably the Danish word kippe for a hut or a mean alehouse. It was first recorded in the middle of the eighteenth century as an Irish slang term for a brothel. The earliest example known is from Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield. As Goldsmith was Irish, educated in Dublin, the implication is that the word was first used in that city. It has long continued to be used there in that way, and appears in compound form in James Joyce’s Ulysses of 1922: “I saw him, kipkeeper!”. That word is remembered in a 1994 book with the title Dublin Tenement Life: “Now we didn’t call them ‘madams’, the outsiders called them madams. We called them ‘kip-keepers’. The houses that they lived in were called kips”. Other names were kip house or kip shop.

By the latter part of the nineteenth century in Britain (as opposed to Ireland) the word had gone further down in the world to mean a common lodging-house for tramps and the homeless. Soon after, it transferred in sense from the place where you sleep to the act of sleeping itself (though in Scotland the word can mean a bed). In the twentieth century it shifted still further away from slang towards the modern informal or colloquial usage.

It does suggest that if you speak of a quick kip, you should be careful in what country you say it ...

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 2 Sep. 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-kip1.htm
Last modified: 2 September 2000.