‘pipsqueak’: meanings and origin

The colloquial noun pipsqueak designates a person or thing that is insignificant or contemptible.

This noun occurs, for example, in the transcript of what Nigel Farage declared on GB News on Thursday 2nd March 2023 in reaction to Matt Hancock’s criticism of his conduct during the COVID-19 pandemic—transcript published in the London Post (London, England) on Thursday 2nd March 2023:

Mr Farage spoke out after it emerged the former Health Secretary had shared a What’sApp message asking if it was possible to get the former Brexit Party leader locked up.
According to reports, Mr Hancock wanted a probe into images Mr Farage had tweeted of himself during the pandemic showing him in a Kent pub after he’d travelled to attend a US Trump rally.
Speaking on GB News this evening (THU) Mr Farage said: “The headline is, can we lock up pub hooligan Nigel Farage? Alright, okay, here we go. I’m going to fess up. […]
“That picture when I had been to America, I was supposed to quarantine I think for 14 days. Had I reached the full 14 days? Well, it was a bit nip and tuck. I think I probably hadn’t quite done.
“And I have to say, you know, bad laws make people law breakers. So, there we are. I’ve fully confessed. If you think the worst would be for it, I’m sorry, but I just don’t like tyrannical Government. I don’t like little pipsqueaks, like Matt Hancock telling me how I should live my life.”

Originally, the noun pipsqueak denoted a type of small high-velocity shell, with reference to the high-pitched sound of the discharge and flight of this type of shell.

In the following from Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases (London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., 1925), Edward Fraser and John Gibbons defined the original meaning, explained the origin, and defined the transferred meaning of the noun pipsqueak:

PIP SQUEAK: A type of German shell fired from a small trench gun. From the sound of its discharge and flight. The word was often used by young officers in semi-official and official documents until an order was issued condemning its employment. Also a small man, or one objectionable in some way, was often contemptuously termed a “Pip Squeak”.

The earliest occurrences that I have found of the noun pipsqueak (in its original form pip-squeak and in its original sense of a type of small high-velocity shell) are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From an account of the siege of the South-African town of Ladysmith by the Boers, which took place from 2nd November 1899 to 28th February 1900, during the Second Boer War—account written by Captain J. W. Dwane, of the 2nd Battalion King’s Royal Rifles, in a letter to his friends at home, and published in the Gravesend & Dartford Reporter, Northfleet Reporter, North Kent, Tilbury, Grays, and South Essex Advertiser (Gravesend, Kent, England) of Saturday 12th May 1900—this text also mentions the noun pip-squeaker as a synonym of the noun pip-squeak:

“Up to date the Boers have fired 10,000 shells at us and in the town. Our circle of defence is about 12 miles and I should think the Boer’s circle round ours must be 30 miles. They have a lot of guns of sorts from a 6in., throwing a 96lb. shell, to a thing we call a ‘pip-squeaker,’ throwing a small shell of about 1lb. The Boer guns on our side that get busy with us are—one at Blawbank (12 pounder), Telegraph Hill (one 15 pounder and one ‘Long Tom,’ 96 pounder), one 12 pounder on Thornhill Kop, one howitzer (40 pounder) on Surprise Hill, also one pip-squeak on Surprise Hill; these at times make it very lively for us.”

2-: From The Essex County Standard, West Suffolk Gazette, and Eastern Counties Advertiser (Colchester, Essex, England) of Saturday 23rd June 1900:


There will be on view to-day (Saturday), at Mr. H. L. Griffin’s, High Street, Colchester, an interesting collection of shells, fragments, etc., fired into Ladysmith by the Boers, during the siege and collected and sent home by Lieutenant. J. E. Green, 2nd East Lancashire Regiment (son of Colonel Green, J. P.) of Stonylands, Dedham, who was in Ladysmith, throughout the siege. The following is a complete list:—
1.—Long Tom. Base of shell, fuse, driving hand shell 6in., weight 95lbs. Creusot gun.
2.—Howitzer, 40lb. shell, unexploded. Krupp gun.
3.—“Screaming Susan,” high velocity field gun. Krupp—Two shrapnel cases, head, time fuse, percussion, etc.
4.—“Pom-Pom,” quick-firing Nordenfeldt, point of armour-piercing shell, fuse.
5.—“Pip-Squeak,” 1½-inch maxim quick-firing gun, box of shell and fuse.
6.—12-pounder field gun, two shrapnell [sic] cases, and one fuse.

The noun pipsqueak was then used as the surname of cartoon characters. The first occurrence of this use is from the caption to the following cartoon by A. T. Smith, published in Punch, or the London Charivari (London, England) of Wednesday 8th October 1902:

Mr. Pipsqueak (more proficient with the “long-bow” than the shot-gun). “Yesterday I brought home seven brace. Not bad, yer know. Fired only fifteen cartridges. To-day haven’t got a single bird. None to be seen.”
Horrid Boy. “’Course not. It’s Early Closing Day and all the shops are shut up!”
[Mr. Pipsqueak wishes “horrid boys” were shut up also.

Many British newspapers reprinted this caption, thus popularising the noun pipsqueak.

The second occurrence of the use of the noun pipsqueak as a surname is from the caption to the following cartoon, published in The Tatler (London, England) of Wednesday 20th July 1904:


Mr. Pipsqueak (having told his friends he is going to get a rise out of the old ’un): Mornin’; I think I know your face
The Old ’Un (thoughtfully): Mornin’; I’m certain I face your nose

The fact that, in each of those cartoons, the character called Mr. Pipsqueak is a silly, contemptible person perhaps gave rise to, or popularised, the use of the common noun pipsqueak in this sense.

However, in the text containing the earliest occurrence that I have found of pipsqueak applied to a person, this common noun seems to merely refer to the fact that the woman it designates is “as fat as a ball”—this text is Dramatic Dialogues. By Frank Richardson. No. VII.—Miss Camille Clifford, an interview of the Belgian-born actress and model Camilla Antoinette Clifford (1885-1971), known professionally as Camille Clifford, published in The Tatler (London, England) of Wednesday 19th April 1905:

F. R.: You are as completely American as an English duchess!
Miss Clifford: Well, it sort of came natural. And when I had learnt the language I went on the stage. I was in Boston where the brains come from, and I went to Manager Henry Savage and told him I wanted to act. He laffed, thought I was a funny little thing, thought I was a pip-squeak.
F. R. (indignantly): That was a grave error. I’m sure you were never a pip-squeak whatever a pip-squeak may be.
Miss Clifford (candidly): Well, I don’t know so much about that. Maybe I was rather like a pip-squeak. There was no more length to me than anything. I was as fat as a ball.

The earliest occurrences that I have found of the noun pipsqueak used in its current sense are:

1-: From The Slowcoach (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1910), by the British author Edward Verrall Lucas (1868-1938)—this novel tells the story of a family named Avery, who make a journey through England in a caravan given to them by a stranger; they enjoy it immensely until they discover that it really is the property of another family:

While […] the father and his two sons were inside, Janet explained the situation to the others. They refused at first to believe it.
“Do you mean to say,” Robert exclaimed, “that the Slowcoach isn’t ours at all?”
“Yes,” said Janet.
“It belongs to those measly pip-squeaks?” said Robert.
“Yes,” said Janet.
Robert held his head in a kind of stupor.

2-: From Notes and News, published in The Birmingham Daily Mail (Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) of Monday 6th May 1912:

The Woolwich magistrate suggested on Saturday that instead of using language to which the neighbours objected, a man should call his wife “a pig-faced owl,” or “a wink-eyed wobbler.” One is always glad to have advice on such matters from those in authority, and one of the most crying needs of humanity is a book of suggestions as to the formation of original insults. We are all of us at some time or another confronted by the appalling inadequacy of the English language for the expression of strong feeling, and a few full-flavoured but harmless additions to our store of phrases would be useful. Mr. Huntley Wright * once coined the phrase, “You pipsqueak,” but “wink-eyed wobbler” is pretty nearly as good.

[* Huntley Wright (1868-1941) was a British stage and film actor.]

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