1550s, from German Pfeife "fife, pipe," from Old High German pfifa; the English word is perhaps via Middle French fifre (15c.) from the same Old High German word. Ultimately imitative (see pipe (n.1)). German musicians provided music for most European courts in those days. As a verb from 1590s. Agent noun fifer is recorded earlier (1530s). Fife and drum is from 1670s.