Q: I’ve lived all my life in Greater Boston, where “in the hopper” means “in the toilet.” How did the expression come to mean “in progress” elsewhere in the country?
A: The word “hopper” has had many senses, both literal and figurative, since it showed up in the mid-13th century as a term for a grasshopper or similar hopping insect.
As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the noun has been used for “a locust or grasshopper, a saltatorial beetle as the turnip flea, a saltatorial homopterous insect as a froth-hopper, a flea, the cheese-hopper or maggot of the cheese-fly.”
(A “saltatorial” insect is a leaper; the Homoptera are plant-feeding insects like aphids and cicadas.)
The earliest OED example is from a Middle English version of Exodus, dated around 1250:
“And so dede, and on wind cam fro westen, and ðo opperes nam, and warpes ouer in-to ðe se” (“And so [the Lord] did, and a western wind took away the locusts and blew them out into the sea”). We’ve expanded the citation from Exodus 10:19.
More than a century later, the term came to mean a receptacle, shaped like an inverted pyramid or cone, through which grain passed into a mill to be ground. The OED says the “hopper” was “so called because it had originally a hopping or shaking motion.”
The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from “The Reeve’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1390):
“Yet saw I neuere by my fader kyn, / How þt the hoper wagges til and fra” (“Yet I never saw, on my family’s honor, how the hopper shakes to and fro”). The “reeve” in the tale is the manager of an estate.
In the 18th century, Oxford says, the use of “hopper” widened to include “similar contrivances for feeding any material to a machine, and, generally, to articles resembling a mill hopper in shape or use.”
The first OED citation for this sense is from Commercium Philosophico-Technicum, a 1763 book by William Lewis about using science to improve art, commerce, and manufacturing:
“The space included between the pipes, at their lower end, under the bason, is a kind of hopper.”
Jumping ahead a century, American politicians began using the word “hopper” in the late 1800s for a box in which proposed bills were dropped for consideration by a legislative body.
The OED, an etymological dictionary, doesn’t include this sense, but its “hopper” entries haven’t been fully updated.
Merriam-Webster Unabridged, a standard dictionary, says one meaning of the term is “a box usually on the desk of the clerk or other official of a legislative body into which a proposed bill is dropped.”
The earliest example we’ve seen for the political usage is from the March 3, 1889, issue of the Indianapolis Journal, which uses grinding-mill terminology in reference to a hopper in the Indiana legislature.
An article in the paper says the governor’s “veto-mill stopped grinding yesterday for want of grist” when he rejected the final bill approved by the legislature. But it adds that the grinder “is in excellent order for another run” and all the Democratic majority has to do “is throw a few more longeared bills in the hopper.”
In the 20th century, the phrase “in the hopper” took on the expanded sense of “in progress” or “under consideration.” The first example we’ve found in searches of newspaper and magazine databases appeared during World War II.
A Nov. 29, 1943, article from the Catholic News Service noted that millions of Americans in the military would be spending Christmas away from home, but “parents need not fear that their loved ones will be lonesome or neglected, for USO has plans in the hopper which would delight the folks back home.”
The usage caught on after the war. An article in the October 1951 issue of the Vassar Alumnae Magazine, for example, mentions several foiled efforts to encroach on national parks, and warns that there “are numerous similar detrimental proposals in the hopper.”
(A similar figurative expression, “in the pipeline,” showed up at the end of World War II. A Sept. 7, 1945, article in the Times, London, refers to “purchases of all goods in the pipeline or in storage.”)
When the two of us hear “in the hopper” used figuratively now, it’s always in the sense of “in progress” or “under consideration.” We don’t recall ever hearing the expression used in the sense of “in the toilet.” (Pat grew up in the Midwest and Stewart in the Northeast.)
However, the Dictionary of American Regional English says “toilet” is indeed a meaning of “hopper,” especially in the Northeast. And the earliest of several DARE citations is a 1957 report from your home state, Massachusetts:
“The maid on our floor [at college], complaining about the strict new housekeeper [said], ‘She won’t even let us use the word ‘hopper’ anymore. We’re supposed to say ‘closet bowl.’ ”