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