Nips & Nipperkins

Men drinking from nip bottles.
Detail from a 1950s advertisement for Ind Coope Arctic Ale in nip bottles.

Until quite recently strong beer was often sold in so-called ‘nip bottles’ but what volume of liquid the word nip represented isn’t straightforward, it turns out.

In his 1785 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue Francis Grose doesn’t list nip but does have this rather wonderful related entry:

"A fmall meafure".

By the time a new edition came out in 1788 nip had been added:

"A half pint, a nyp of ale"

We think what he’s saying here is that nipperkin (the vessel) derives from nip (the measure) although other sources suggest the derivation runs the other way. Either way, Grose is quite specific and clear: a nip is half a pint. That doesn’t seem to have changed in subsequent editions published in the decades that followed, even as the text was expanded and corrected.

Other 18th and 19th century dictionaries give the same or similar definitions for nip or nipperkin, too. Here’s Thomas Dyche’s of 1735:

Dictionary entry for Nipperkin.

Just to confuse things, though, this 1725 Canting Dictionary suggests that a nipperkin referred to half a pint of wine but ‘half a Quartern of Brandy, Strong Waters [spirits], &c.’ Half a quartern is insanely confusing — half a quarter of a pint, we think. At any rate, it suggests that nipperkin (and thus nip) was not tied to a specific volume but rather meant a relatively small measure of whichever drink you happened to be ordering. ‘Oh, go on then, just a cheeky…’ is implied.

When the Weights & Measures Act of 1824 was passed it did not include the nip/nipperkin among the new standard Imperial units of volume which meant that, legally speaking at least, it ceased to exist.

There’s talk of it having lived on in practice (PDF) through the conservatism of customers and/or sharp practice by publicans and it certainly lingered in song. Here’s the now standard text of ‘The Barley Mow’ a version of which was first transcribed in 1855 (PDF):

Here’s good luck to the pint pot,
Good luck to the barley mow.
Jolly good luck to the pint pot,
Good luck to the barley mow.
Refrain: the pint pot, half a pint, gill pot, half a gill, quarter gill, nipperkin, and the brown bowl.
Here’s good luck (good luck!), good luck to the barley mow.

The song works by ramping up the size of the drink with each verse which gives us a handy ranking. Here, the nipperkin has become almost the smallest imaginable measure of beer, less than ⅛ of a pint.

Its resurgence as the nip bottle seems to have come in the early 20th century and especially between the wars, if the frequency of its appearance in newspapers is a reliable indicator. Here’s a helpful summary of what nip had come to mean by this time from a 1939 report on licensing in the Leicester Daily Mercury for 4 April that year:

The definition of a ‘nip’ bottle of beer figured in the application by Messrs. Offiler, of Derby, for the confirmation of a beer off-licence… Making the application, Mr Geoffrey Barnett asked if the sale of ‘nip’ botles could be allowed, and Mr Woolley asked what a ‘nip’ bottle was.

Mr Barnett said it was a well-known term in the trade, and the bottle contained less than half a pint.

By the 1960s when Thomas Hardy’s Ale was launched by Eldridge Pope, along with pints and half-pints there were also nip bottles on offer containing about 180ml, or somewhere near a third of a pint. This seems to have been the industry standard although Courage IRS came in 170ml bottles and there were probably other variants around too.

In recent years, though, what we might think of as nip bottles because they look oddly tiny next to the now standard 330ml container are often as big as 250ml or even 275ml. Can we say, perhaps, that nip inflation is taking us back to where we started?

As ever, corrections are very welcome, especially if they point to contemporary or otherwise reliable sources as evidence.

13 thoughts on “Nips & Nipperkins”

  1. In the Marlpool Alehouse in Heanor, Derbyshire, there is a collection of unopened bottles of old beers, including some that looked like nips to me. (They’re on high shelves so a close look isn’t possible.) These were of some fairly ordinary beers (such as Marstons Pedigree), whereas I had used to think of nips as being used for stronger beers such as barley wines. (See https://www.pubsgalore.co.uk/pubs/79093/ or https://whatpub.com/pubs/ERE/12847/marlpool-ale-house-marlpool for details of the pub, which is well worth a visit.)

  2. Smaller than 1/8th of a pint? Look again – the quarter-gill is 1/16th of a pint. By implication, the Barley Mow nipperkin must be absolutely tiny – some sort of shot glass.

    The OED’s account of the etymology of ‘nip’ and ‘nipperkin’ is a nice little time sink. As you say, the derivation seems to run both ways – ‘nip’ short for ‘nipperkin’, ‘nipperkin’ from ‘nip’ – which is confusing, but may be historically correct. It looks to me as if we have ‘nip’ – a peck, a bite, a mouthful – being used for an exaggeratedly small quantity of beer in the seventeenth century; then, some time later, the appearance of ‘nipperkin’, a new (and possibly Dutch) coinage, meaning a pot so small as to contain a ‘nip’; then, in the late 18th and early 19th century, a hazy standardisation of ‘nipperkin’ sizes to around half a pint and the reappearance of ‘nip’ as a contraction of ‘nipperkin’.

  3. I’m rather fond of the noggin, which like the gill varied a bit historically but was rather more consistently a quarter-pint than the gill. More of a northern thing though?

  4. I hadn’t heard of nip until a few years ago. Starting drinking (legally) in 1989, Robinsons’ Old Tom always used to get sold in thirds in my Stockport local (unless you were on good terms with the landlady); these were always referred to as a “pony”. God knows why…

    1. Pony – the little drink with the big kick!

      All I remember of it is the TV ad – I was too young to go in pubs at the time (those were the days eh). I would check it out, but I am actually supposed to be working…

    2. A pony is smaller than a horse, so it’s been used for various small measures. In the US it’s half a jigger – 22ml of spirits. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=kd2bAAAAQBAJ&pg=PA146

      In Oz it’s generally 1/5 pint (140ml) – but the variations in measures between Aussie states is a world unto itself :
      https://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/opinion/skull-a-pony-drink-a-butcher-australian-beer-sizes-have-been-upsized-20150305-13w5ih.html
      https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=oB3iBAAAQBAJ&pg=PA33

      What’s smaller than a pony? Western Australia has a Shetland, of 115ml. Big drinkers these Aussies….
      (yeah, I know, heat means smaller glasses are more sensible)

    1. If I had another penny
      I would have another gill
      I would make the piper play
      The bonny lass of Byker Hill

      The pitman and the keelman trim
      They drink bumble made from gin
      Then to dance they do begin
      To the tune of Elsie Marley
      – Byker Hill (trad.)

      Somebody’s evidently dispensing bumble (gin and hot water?) by the gill (quarter-pint or half-pint)? On the other hand, in the next verse a named character hits his pig with a shovel and it dances a jig, so perhaps this isn’t the most accurate historical record.

      1. The first draft of this post included gills but we decided to keep it simple — too much to chew in one piece.

        Short version, though: gill undeniably a quarter pint in legal terms, as an official Imperial measure, but equally undeniably used to refer to half-pints in large parts of the north of England at least up until WWII. (Mass Observation.) Weights and measures didn’t take.

        Just to confuse things a bit more my Mum reckons my grandfather (Lancastrian) used to talk about popping to the pub for a gill but would then drink pints. (See also: ‘Fancy a pint?’ not necessarily meaning that you’ll drink pints.)

        qq — perhaps the hijacking of ‘gill’ for half-pint is why ‘noggin’ was often used for quarter pints…?

        1. The earlier versions of “The Barley Mow” included both nipperkins and pipperkins, which, given the increasing volumes in the song would indicate that a pip was slightly larger than a nip (or maybe they were the same thing).

          The earliest reference to nipperkin that I know is from Aphra Behn’s 1671 play The Amorous Prince, which includes the line: ‘Tis something cold, I’ll go take a Nipperkin of Wine” after The Song for Guilliam.

          Peter Pindar’s (John Wolcot) Hair Powder; A Plaintive Epistle also includes a reference:

          “His hawk-economy won’t thank thee for’t,
          Which stops his pretty nipperkin of PORT.

          The 1794 verson of the works (The Works of Peter Pindar, Vol. 4) includes an interesting footnote to this line:

          “Such is the laudable moderation of this second Sir John Cutler, or Mr. Elwes, that he allows himself and Lady at and after dinner no more than this little measure of wine! A fine example for the sons of dissipation! It has been supposed that the economical Judge has surpassed the famous miracle of the loaves and fishes, by making one bottle of wine serve for double the number of souls, or rather bodies, that have come with open mouths to Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields. I do not think they have gone away so well satisfied.” Based on the standard-sized bottle of wine now, this would mean a nip of wine was about 63 ml or 2 ounces. Of course, the cheap judge might have started with a smaller bottle.

  5. I think she Ship and Mitre in Liverpool still sells beers by the ‘Nip’, in this case it’s a 1/3rd pint measure.

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