The word blip is perhaps originally a coinage by Mark Twain, in Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894), to mean a sudden blow, perhaps a minor kind of ‘bop’: – a character is given ‘a blip in the back’ and knocked off his feet by the hot-air balloon in which Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer are sailing over the Sahara desert, which causes him to fall over (Twain 1894, 187).
As one might expect, blip enters the language as the imitation of a sound. It is first cousin to ‘beep’, most commonly employed to signify the sound inviting a message on an answerphone – ‘please leave a message when you hear the beep’ – and also perhaps to ‘pip’. The beginning of Great Expectations suggests that ‘pip’ is heard as a kind of elementary phoneme, to signify the most basic kind of locution: ‘My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.’
Blip was the title of a video games magazine published by Marvel Comics from 1983, which included regular ‘Blip Tips’ to ‘improve your scores with video games’.
Paul Muldoon restores the image to actuality in ‘The Unicorn Defends Itself’:
Once you swallowed a radar-blip
you were out of your tree (Muldoon 1996, 77)
The development of radar seems to have effected a shoft from the auditory to the visual in the understanding of blips. From 1945, a blip was an abrupt jump in a graphical trace. The reference to radar is often retained in contemporary uses of the word – as in ‘a blip on the radar’ – but the suggestion is often more generally of a sudden variation, sharp but short-lived, in otherwise stable conditions, as represented by a jump or spike in a graph. The word may be regarded as a audio-visual compound, formed from the common experience of electronic displays which accompany visual traces with sound. In medical monitors, the blip is often the representation of the pulse, so therefore of a normal, stable state, rather than of a temporary aberration from it (this latter would be signalled by the ‘flatline’). In films, you know you are in a submarine because of the regular pattern of blips such craft invariably and unaccountably emit when submerged.
Muldoon, Paul (1996). New Selected Poems 1968-1994. London: Faber and Faber.
Twain, Mark (1894). Tom Sawyer Abroad, By Huck Finn. Edited by Mark Twain. New York: Charles L. Webster and Co.