Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Words of the day: pith, gist

I started wondering about the word pith yesterday, which I associate with essences and concision. I’m suprised to discover that the word comes to us from plant life:

I think I should have known that. I think I should have also known that a pith helmet is made of the stuff.

Pith made me wonder about gist: does it too have a literal referent in nature? Maybe in geology? Nope:

I remember hearing the word gist often in kidhood. “I’ll give you the gist of it,” my dad would say. (He still does.) Gist and pith go together in my mind because of a sentence in Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading (1934):
A Japanese student in America, on being asked the difference between prose and poetry, said: Poetry consists of gists and piths.
This post too.

[Definitions from the New Oxford American Dictionary.]

comments: 9

Rachel said...

I could have told you about pith, which I think I learned from summers watching The Food Network :)

Matt said...

I remember learing the word "pith" in secondary school (high school) 20 odd years ago. It was Home Ec, and we were peeling oranges. Once the teacher said the word, us schoolboys were giggling like, well, schoolboys, because it sounds like a swear word said with a lisp! I know, juvenile.

Michael Leddy said...

Rachel, I wish I had thought to ask you.

Matt, I must admit that the pun crossed my mind while writing the post.

Elaine said...

Didn't you have to pith a frog in biology class? And what about being a Scout? Pith makes good tinder! (This pith being the dry pulpy center of stalks, that is.) I'm betting you did know the word, just forgot it was on file...

Michael Leddy said...

We worked with fetal pigs only. And no, no Scouting in my background. Honest, I think I’ve known pith only in its figurative sense.

stefan said...

Sorry to pile on, Michael, but you must have forgotten Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "A Musical Instrument:"

He cut it short, did the great god Pan
(How tall it stood in the river!),
Then drew the pith, like the heart of a man,
Steadily from the outside ring,
And notched the poor dry empty thing
In holes, as he sat by the river.

But thanks for the fun post (and for giving us all a chance to tease you!).

Michael Leddy said...

Oh, yes, of course, an oversight on my part. [Reaches furtively for Norton Anthology of Poetry.]

Elaine said...

I had a fetal pig in college...dubbed Theophilus (because he was the awfulest piggie-wig...and heart-breakingly, he DID have three little hairs on his chinny-chin-chin.)

HS bio in 1962 was very lab-heavy, with (enormous) earthworm, (gigantic) grasshopper, starfish, perch, frog...and the frog we got was FULL of eggs. Since I had helped my granddad clean the chickens we killed, I had no real qualms about a few cold-blooded lifeforms. By the time my kids took biology, though, the cost and liability issues meant no dissection whatever. Sheesh.

Michael Leddy said...

How curious that the comments here have ended up looking ahead to the next post, with pigs and rivers.

I guess that dissection, like cars with AM-only radios, might now be a marker of age. The dissection scene in my high school was a little too much like something from Lord of the Flies.