Pike County, Missouri, is located on the Mississippi River north of St. Louis and just south of Mark Twain's Hannibal. It is still a quiet rural county, noted for the Stark Brothers Nursery and not much else.
But its name is known nationwide, thanks to Pikers, who followed the gold rushes to California and Colorado in the mid-nineteenth century. By the late 1850s they were so prominent in these adventures that Piker became the nickname for anyone from Missouri, not just from Pike County.
We find them in a Marysville, California, newspaper of 1860:
"Pillbox said they were there for the benefit of the 'Pikers,' that they might learn to read."
The Pikers were not noted for quickness of wit or spectacular success at finding gold, but they did gain a reputation for frugality. A Piker would not gamble, drink, or spend his money to excess. Thus he was viewed by the free-spending majority as a timid cheapskate.
And so piker, having lost its association with a particular place and thereby its capital letter, came to mean someone of no boldness or ambition, someone who ventures little and always plays it safe.
The term applied first to small-stakes gamblers, then to small-stakes investors in the stock market, then to slackers in any enterprise.
He's pretty good, but compared to the superstars, he's a real piker.
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