Pixel

Connect the dots.

Dear Word Detective: I read with delight your explanation of the word “pixilated” — what a handy thing to know as you can call someone “mildly insane” and it sounds as though it might be a good thing. Could you please explain “pixel” and where the word came from? — Carol Campbell.

“Pixilated” is indeed a great word. As I explained in that column (which was written back in 1997), “pixilated” is an American coinage dating back to the mid-1800s meaning to behave as if under the influence of “pixies.” A “pixie” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “a supernatural being with magical powers, typically portrayed as small and human-like in form, with pointed ears and a pointed hat,” also known as a “fairy.” Pixies, fairies, elves and the like, according to folklore, delight in messing with human beings, and often cast spells to addle their victims, leading to the OED’s definition of “pixilated,” back in 1997, as “mildly insane, fey, whimsical; bewildered, confused; intoxicated, tipsy.” Unfortunately, the OED has, as of June 2006, changed its definition, which now omits “mildly insane” in favor of “slightly crazed,” which is hardly the same thing. I guess someone complained. Feh, say I. Some of my best friends are “mildly insane.” It’s interesting that the OED retained “fey,” which used to mean “mentally disordered” (as if by approaching death) but now is usually used to mean “affected or whimsical.”

“Pixie,” incidentally, dates back to around 1636 in English and is of uncertain origin. The OED traces it to “Puck,” a mischievous goblin of English folklore (related to the Irish “puca” or “pooka,” for you “Harvey” fans), plus the diminutive suffix “sy.” It’s also possible that “pixie” is derived from the Swedish dialect word “pyske,” meaning “small fairy.”

None of that, however, has anything to do with “pixel,” which first appeared in 1969. “Pixels” are the little dots making up an image on a television screen, computer monitor or the like, or the individual elements of a digital image. When you zoom in on that picture of a cute bunny rabbit your friend emailed you and eventually you see just a swath of little squares, those are “pixels.” The root of “pixel” is simply “pix,” which is a 1920s plural variant of “pic,” late 19th century slang for “picture.”

So there’s no connection between “pixie” and “pixel,” although the fact that “pixels” are often tiny little spots of light (like Tinkerbelle) probably helped popularize the word.

6 comments on this post.
  1. marcparis:

    I thought that the “el” in “pixel” came from “element” (pixel = picture element). Is that correct?

  2. RolyMole:

    There’s also “pixelated” in the sense of having some pixels in an image deliberately smeared, cleared or otherwise obscured to prevent something undesirable being seen – e.g. a face that could be recognised or a pornographic image.

  3. ShiftR:

    Pixelated was first used in the nerd world, I believe, to refer to any image whose visual quality was reduced by the perception of the pixels themselves. Later the effect was adopted to deliberately obscure images. Textbooks certainly give ‘picture element’ as the origin of pixel. There are also ‘voxels’, the 3D equivalent of 2D pixels. Somewhere out there there are probably one or more aged nerds who believe they coined ‘pixel’. So why are words ‘coined’?

  4. Topi Linkala:

    @SiftR: Words are coined because in a technical document using the full definition every time would make the reading (more) tedious.

  5. thepratingknave:

    @Topi Linkala: I believe ShiftR was inquiring as to how the term ‘coined’ was, well, coined. I’ve often wondered myself.

  6. mr.kanada:

    I started using the word ‘pixelated’ back in 1999 when I was listening to my friends in college talk about pixels and such for his graphic design project. I wittingly ;) described his ‘distorted/blurry’ picture he had on his screen as ‘pixelated’ where he promptly laughed at me and said there was no such word.

    So does that mean I came up with the word and it spread across the world like wildfire? I coined the word! Sweet!

    Hahaha, needless to say, I am not a nerd. Far from it actually.

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