someone who other people follow or support but who may harm them or leave them disappointed
Origin and usage
The term pied piper originates from a medieval German legend which was made popular in English in an 1842 poem by Robert Browning. ‘Pied’ comes from the Middle English word ‘pie’, a shortening of ‘magpie’, a bird with distinctive black and white feathers. In the Middle Ages, black and white clothing was called ‘pied’, a term later applied to multicoloured items as well. ‘Piper’ is derived from the Latin word ‘pipare’ meaning ‘to peep or chirp’.
Pied piper is a noun that refers to a person who is easy to follow but may not have the best intentions in the end.
The Pied Piper is the main character in a German tale about a man hired by the citizens of a town to get rid of rats. The man dressed in multicoloured – or ‘pied’ – clothing and played a magic pipe to lure the rats to a river outside the town where they were drowned. According to the story, the people of the town refused to pay him and so he used his magical flute to lure their children away from home.
In some versions of the folktale, the Pied Piper returns the children to their families after the townspeople agree to pay his fee. In other versions of the story, the children never come back and are never seen again.
This is how the term pied piper came to describe a person who is easy to follow but who may not always care about his followers’ wellbeing ultimately.
“And I chiefly use my charm
On creatures that do people harm,
The mole and toad and newt and viper;
And people call me the Pied Piper.”
(The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Robert Browning)