The Grammarphobia Blog

Where’d ya get those peeps?

Q: I wonder if you’d comment on the word “peeps.” I’ve seen it several times recently, once in an ad advising young people to be tested for HIV. The young man shown says he is tested “for me and my peeps.” The meaning is clear, but the word is new to me.

A: Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang (2d ed.) defines “peeps” as a slang term originating in the 1980s on college campuses and in the black community. It’s derived from “people” and it means parents, friends, people in general, according to Cassell’s.

But the term was apparently around nearly a century and a half earlier, according to two odd citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED says the quotations “represent the speech of non-native English speakers.”

In the earliest citation, from the Dec. 29, 1847, issue of the Janesville Gazette in Wisconsin, a French chaplain is quoted as offering this prayer in the Michigan Legislature: “O Lor! Bless de peeps and their servant de representatives. May dey make laws for de peeps and not for demselves – amen.”

In the other reference, from an 1868 book called Theatrical Management in the West and South for 30 Years, a French musician is quoted as saying: “I hear dat in dis Cincinnati de peops very mush fond of de musique, and de eat and de drink is sheep.”

It strikes me, though, that these attempts to quote the mangled English of two Frenchmen sound an awful lot like some 19th-century white efforts to imitate or caricature African-American speech.

The first OED citation for “peeps” used in the way you suggest comes from the Dec. 29, 1951, issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune: “Around the country, high schoolers are greeting each other with ‘Hi, peeps’ (short for ‘hello, people,’ of course).”

The dictionary has five other modern references, including this one from a 1988 book, Wad and Peep, co-authored by the British comedian Harry Enfield: “Golf, the sport of badly dressed peeps all around the world.”

From what I can tell by the more recent citations, the term “peeps” has been used by blacks and whites, young and old, over the last half-century. And I do mean used, though not always to refer to people.

I got 13.7 million hits when I googled “peeps,” but nearly all of the first few hundred refer to those tiny marshmallow candies shaped like chickens, rabbits, and other animals. All the best to you and your peeps!

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