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 or 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.

      In Oz it’s gen­er­al­ly 1/5 pint (140ml) – but the vari­a­tions in mea­sures between Aussie states is a world unto itself :–13w5ih.html

      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)

  5. In 1950s Hartle­pool my great grand­moth­er sold gills, which I believe referred to half pints in that part of the world.

    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.

  6. 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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