Wood on Words: ‘Peep,’ ‘cheep’ and other noisy terms

Barry Wood

Is it any wonder that “chicken feed” became a slang term for “an insignificant sum of money”? Even the baby birds say it’s “cheep, cheep, cheep.”

I know, I groaned, too — and I wrote it. But it achieves my goal of connecting the homonyms “cheep” and “cheap.”

“Cheep,” the noise made by a young bird, is appropriately echoic in origin: It makes the sound it defines.

Similarly formed words for similar sounds include:

“Chirp.” This one also can be a human sound: “to speak in a lively, shrill way.” The informal “chirpy” means “cheerful; lively; merry.”

“Chirrup.” The word is a variation of “chirp” and is applied to repeated chirping. Another use is “to make a series of sharp, sucking sounds with the lips, as in urging a horse on.”

And “peep” is synonymous with “cheep” and “chirp,” and immortalized in the marshmallow confection popular around Easter. “Peeps” are generally shaped like chicks or bunnies, but only the former peep. As for baby rabbits, you rarely hear a peep out of them.

“Peeps” also has become slang for “people.”

The other “peep” — “to peer slyly or secretly” — appears to have the same origin as “peek,” and they are essentially interchangeable.

“Peepers” as a term for “eyes” has been around since the 1700s, according to “American Slang.” We can use our peepers playfully, in the game of “peekaboo,” for example.

But they have led us into darker activities as well.

Again citing “American Slang,” “peeper” was introduced as a synonym for “private detective” around 1940.

Earlier there was the form of entertainment known as a “peep show,” originally “a pictured scene or group of objects, as in a box, viewed through a small opening, sometimes with a magnifying lens.”

Eventually it also became associated with what’s sometimes called “adult entertainment.”

Older still, by a long shot, is “peeping Tom,” “a person who gets pleasure ... from watching others, especially furtively.”

The origin of this term for “voyeur” is part of the legend of Lady Godiva.

She was a real person, who married the tyrannical Leofric Earl of Mercia in 1040. Her claim to fame, which first appeared in writing about a century later, was a naked ride on horseback through the marketplace of Coventry, a town in England.

That was her husband’s price for honoring her persistent requests that he lower taxes. (They had an unusual relationship.)

Later versions of the story say she spread the word that the people should stay indoors and shut their windows and doors. Only one of them, a tailor named Tom, chose to watch — and he ended up blinded (by divine punishment).

Tom isn’t part of the story until 1773, changing it into a morality tale — showing that a “cheap thrill” can have dire consequences.

Webster’s traces this “cheap” back to the Latin “caupo,” for “petty tradesman.” It originally applied to bargains, but has accumulated additional associations: “virtually worthless,” “contemptible” and “stingy.”

It also has given us the verb “cheapen” for “to depreciate, belittle or bring into contempt,” and the slang “cheapskate.”

Finally, here’s a bit of pop culture history, which is not intended as a “cheap shot.”

From July 1952 through June 1955, there was a popular television show on NBC named “Mr. Peepers.” It starred bespectacled actor Wally Cox (later to provide the voice for the cartoon character Underdog) as a junior high school science teacher named Robinson J. Peepers.

I suspect that a man named Peepers teaching teenagers is not a concept that network TV would be comfortable with today.

Contact Rockford Register Star writer Barry Wood at or read his blog at