Pipe dream

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The term pipe dream has unexpectedly nefarious origins. We’ll define the term pipe dream, explore its American origins and discover the correct way to use this word.

A pipe dream is an unrealistic and unattainable goal, an impossible hope. The pipe alluded to in this term is a smoking pipe, but the substance being smoked is not tobacco. Pipe dream stems from the practice of smoking opium, and though many English writers turned to opiates for inspiration, the term pipe dream originated in the United States. In the mid-1800s to the late 1800s, the western United States was rife with opium dens, places where opium from China was sold and smoked. A large influx of opium came from China with the California Gold Rush of 1850. The experience of smoking opium caused the user to hallucinate. At the time, these hallucinations were called opium dreams, opium pipe dreams, or pipe dreams. In the 1870s, the term pipe dream came into use to describe the hallucinations a person experienced while under the influence of opium. By the 1890s, the term pipe dream was used figuratively, to describe a hope or ambition that was impossible to attain. Originally, pipe dream was rendered with a hyphen, as in pipe-dream. Today, the Oxford English Dictionary lists pipe dream as two separate words. The plural form of pipe dream is pipe dreams. Opium dens were banned in San Francisco in 1875. New York’s last known opium den was closed in a raid in 1957.


The major league record, Ted Williams’s 84-game streak in 1949, seemed like “a pipe dream.” (The Washington Post)

NEEDTOBREATHE’s sixth album would have seemed like a pipe dream just a few years ago. (The INdianapolis Star)

An artificial Gaza island is an impractical pipe dream (The Jerusalem Post)