Pipe Dream: Definition, Meaning, and Origin

Last Updated on
September 30, 2023

Everyone has a dream or goal they wish to achieve. But, sometimes, those dreams can seem unattainable or unrealistic. This is what the phrase "pipe dream" means. It describes a dream or goal that seems unlikely to come true.

In short:

"Pipe Dream" refers to an unrealistic or unattainable goal or dream.

What Does “Pipe Dream” Mean?

When someone uses the term "pipe dream," they often refer to an aspiration that appears impossible or difficult to achieve. The idea here is that the dream is so far-fetched it might as well be a fantasy.

  • Pipe dream - A hope or plan that is unlikely to ever be realized.
  • Related expression: chasing a dream - Pursuing a goal that's difficult to reach.
  • Variation: living in a dream world - Being unrealistic or overly optimistic.

The phrase "pipe dream" often reminds us to be realistic about our aspirations while also acknowledging the human spirit's desire to aim high.

Where Does “Pipe Dream” Come From?

The term originates from the 19th century. People who smoked opium pipes would often experience vivid, unrealistic dreams as a side effect. Therefore, their dreams, or "pipe dreams," were seen as unattainable and not based on reality.

Historical Usage

A notable historical reference can be found in literature. Mark Twain, in his writings, once said,

"His new plan is nothing but a pipe dream. He might as well wish to fly to the moon."

10 Examples of "Pipe Dream" in Sentences

Understanding the term better often requires seeing it in context.

Here are some examples of how "pipe dream" can be used in various sentences:

  • Thinking I could become an astronaut without any training was just a pipe dream.
  • Winning the lottery seems like a pipe dream for many, but it's still fun to imagine.
  • With the daily grind of her job, owning a mansion in Beverly Hills felt like a pipe dream.
  • Is it a pipe dream to think I could ever perform on Broadway?
  • I always read between the lines when people tell me their pipe dreams. Sometimes, there's more reality there than they think.
  • Believing he could skip practice and still make the team was nothing more than a pipe dream.
  • If you think that's possible with our current budget, you're living in a pipe dream.
  • Thinking she could eat sweets daily and not gain weight was a delightful pipe dream.
  • His idea of traveling the world without any savings is just a pipe dream.
  • While writing her novel, she realized that achieving instant fame was nothing more than a pipe dream.

As you can see, this term can be used in various scenarios to emphasize the unrealistic nature of hope or ambition.

Examples of “Pipe Dream” in Pop Culture

The phrase has been used in popular culture in various forms:

  • The 1995 film "Jack and Miri" features a storyline where the main characters chase a pipe dream of getting rich quickly.
  • In the song "Daily Grind" by The Blue Stones, the lyrics allude to the challenges of chasing a pipe dream.
  • A TV show episode titled "In The Know" of the series "Life's Twists" had the protagonist chasing a pipe dream of becoming a famous writer.
  • The book "Chasing Shadows" by L.A. Myles uses the phrase to describe the protagonist's unattainable aspirations.
  • The phrase has been referenced in numerous speeches, especially in the context of political promises seen as unrealistic.

Synonyms: Other/Different Ways to Say “Pipe Dream"

Here are some synonyms and alternative phrases that can be used interchangeably with "pipe dream":

  • Fantasy
  • Illusion
  • Daydream
  • Castle in the sky
  • Flight of fancy
  • Pie in the sky

10 Frequently Asked Questions About “Pipe Dream”:

  • What exactly does "pipe dream" mean?

It refers to an aspiration or dream that's considered unrealistic or unattainable.

  • Where did the phrase originate?

The term "pipe dream" has its roots in the 19th century, related to the vivid dreams of opium pipe smokers.

  • Is the term negative?

Generally, it's used to indicate skepticism about the feasibility of a dream or goal. However, it doesn't always have a strictly negative connotation and can sometimes be used playfully.

  • Do people use "pipe dream" worldwide?

While it's primarily an English idiom, the concept is understood in many cultures, even if the exact phrase varies.

  • How can I move forward if my goals are seen as "pipe dreams"?

While it's important to be realistic, never let others' skepticism deter you. Use their doubt as motivation, and prove them wrong!

  • Can "pipe dream" refer to a collective aspiration?

Yes, it can be used to describe both individual and collective unrealistic aspirations.

  • Why is the term related to pipes?

It's connected to opium pipes and the vivid, unrealistic dreams smokers would have as a side effect.

  • Are there other idioms similar to "pipe dream"?

Yes, idioms like "chasing shadows" or "building castles in the air" convey similar meanings.

  • Has the term evolved over time?

Its usage and contexts have evolved, but the fundamental meaning remains relatively consistent.

  • Do all cultures understand the concept of a "pipe dream"?

Many cultures have idioms or phrases that convey the idea of an unattainable or unrealistic dream, even if they don't use the exact term "pipe dream."

Final Thoughts About “Pipe Dream”

Understanding the complex history and the nuanced uses of the idiom “pipe dream” can greatly enrich one's grasp of the English language and literature.

  • Initially linked with the opium dens and later evolving over time to represent an unattainable or fanciful hope or plan.
  • People frequently use the term in daily language to signify something nearly impossible, suggesting caution against too hopeful plans.
  • "Pipe dream" holds a firm position in pop culture, with references in songs, movies, and books, emphasizing its strong presence in contemporary discussions.
  • The term seamlessly fits into various contexts, helping to illustrate scenarios involving unfeasible goals or plans vividly.

It is a phrase that has adapted and endured, bearing witness to historical periods and changing cultures while maintaining a core essence that resonates with many. A deeper appreciation for this idiom allows one to not only use it with more accuracy and aptness but also to discern the underlying narratives in its historical and contemporary usage, enabling a richer engagement with language.

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