one’s pigeon


The development of trading contacts between Britain and China led to the emergence in 19th-century China of a trading language consisting of basic English and some Chinese grammatical forms. In this hybrid language, pidgin was derived from, and originally meant, business. (The phonetic development was perhaps via an intermediate form /pidginiss/ (with replacement of English /z/ before a consonant by /dgi/), the final syllable of which, perhaps taken as a plural inflection, was dropped.)

Originally transcribed pigeon and pidgeon, the word is first recorded in the entry dated 21st September 1807 of the unpublished journal of the pioneer protestant missionary Robert Morrison in Canton:

Ting-qua led me into a Poo Saat Mew, a temple of Poo Saat. “This Jos”, pointing to the idol, said he “take care of fire ‘pigeon’, fire ‘business’”.

In A Peep at China (1839), the American philanthropists Enoch Cobb Wines (1806-79) and Nathan Dunn (1782-1844) wrote:

The generality of small traders, with whom foreigners come in contact, [...] are as great rogues as can be found anywhere, and most of them will ask four or five times as much for an article as they expect to get, and by their well feigned surprise if an attempt is made to beat them down often impose upon strangers. The English language is most barbarously used in China, and conversations like the following daily take place in old and new China streets, which are near the factories, or foreign residences, and are filled with small shops which depend upon foreigners for support. [...] “What’s the price of this fan?” “Au! dat hab number one Nankin ting; two dollar plum cashy hab true price.” “I’ll give you half a dollar.” “Half dollar! Hy-yah! how can? Maskee one dollar haf.” “No. I won’t give you but half a dollar.” “Hy-yah! numbar one ting haf dollar! no ca-an maskee one dollar.” “No. Half dollar.” “Jus-now-no-can-Ketchy any-plofit! Maskee! hab litty pidgeon, haf dollar can do.” [...]
Pidgeon, is the common Chinese pronunciation of business; but those who try to speak correctly call it pidgeoness.

This original sense of pidgin gave rise to one’s pigeon, meaning a person’s business or particular responsibility. One of its earliest occurrences is found in The Army of a Dream (1904), by the British novelist, short-story writer and poet Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). The narrator is asking questions to the commander of the Imperial Guard Battalion, Bayley, who is inspecting the Foreign Service corps:

“What’s their regimental average?”
“It ought to be five eight, height, thirty-eight, chest, and twenty-four years, age.” [...]
“What about their musketry average?” I went on.
Not my pidgin,” said Bayley. “But they wouldn’t be in the corps a day if they couldn’t shoot; I know that much.”

The Australian author Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson (1864-1941) also used one’s pigeon in The Dog—as a Sportsman, from Three Elephant Power and Other Stories (1917):

A greyhound will start out in the morning with three lame legs, but as soon as he sees a hare start he must go. He utterly forgets his sorrows in the excitement, just as a rowing-man, all over boils and blisters, will pull a desperate race without feeling any pain. Such dogs are not easily excited by anything but a chase, and a burglar might come and rob the house and murder the inmates without arousing any excitement among them. Guarding a house is “not their pidgin” as the Chinese say. That is one great reason for the success of the dog at whatever branch of his tribe’s work he goes in for—he is so thorough. Dogs who are forced to combine half-a-dozen professions never make a success at anything. One dog one billet is their motto.

Nowadays, the proper noun Pidgin (with a capital P) is another term for Tok Pisin, meaning literally pidgin talk. Tok Pisin, a language in its own right, is an English-based creole used as a commercial and administrative language by over 2 million people in Papua New Guinea. It is also called Neo-Melanesian.

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