Daily Archives: September 15, 2010

pith

Of course, one can’t taste this word without getting an overtone of some similar words, and one in particular comes to mind. And it’s possible that it and pith are related.

I’m talking about pit, of course. As in the stone of a fruit: the centre, the heart, and imagistically the source of strength. Way back in the Germanic origins this word and that one may have been related.

But pith doesn’t refer to the stone of a fruit; if it’s part of a fruit at all, it’s the part between the rind and the flesh, for instance that white stuff in an orange. That’s not its original referent, however; first of all, pith refers to a soft, internal, spongy part, for instance in the stem of a plant, or the heart of a tree. Or the heart of the spinal cord or white matter of the brain in a person or animal, or the marrow of the bone (all three of which have been called medulla in Latin – actually, the definition of medulla is, among other things, “pith”).

So, for instance, the verb pith can mean to dispatch an animal with a spike to its brain stem. We would not call that taking the pith because it’s not really a removal, simple a muddling of the medulla; and although the creature is thereby done off with, it is not said to be pithed off. But it certainly has had its vigour ablated.

Which reminds me of another word this is reminiscent of. I mean, naturally, pitch. Shakespeare scholars will be familiar with the different versions of Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, wherein he refers to “enterprises of great pith and moment” – or “of great pitch and moment.” Hmm, have currents been turned awry? Well, no, we may say that pitch is a bit of a modernization. In the original, anyway, the sense of pith is “importance” or “weight”, which comes from “energy” and “core” and “strength”, all senses that derive from the sense “innermost part”. This is thus no mere matter of pith and vinegar; it is, indeed, the shining golden stream flowing through the core: the sap. Well, or, more to the point, the wood through which the sap flows. Take the pith and you have sapped the person, leaving them pith-poor.

I find this word has a good sound for what it signifies; the opening /p/ is crisp, bright, the vowel insistent, and the final fricative soft as pith often is. Ironically, the whole thing is said right at the front of the mouth, not at all in the heart. As to the collocations, they vary in tone: pith ball refers to a light thing, made of pith originally, hanging on a string, repelled by static electricity. On the other hand, pith helmet names something with distinct adventuresome overtones – a helmet made for tropical exploits, a light thing formed from dried pith of certain kinds of Aeschynomene plants.

And there are, of course, other echoes and overtones. Path may enter in, though the vowel change really does seem to make a difference. Kith might come up, though it’s not exactly a common word. And piffle may sneak in, though that second syllable pulls it away. You may think of another word or two that this one is reminiscent of (but unrelated to). If you do, and are tempted to send me a terse reply, allow me simply to remind you that there’s no need to be pithy about it. Let the words stream forth!

Thanks to Dan Gross for asking for pith.