Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Daily Hump: Pith Helmets and Pythons

The pith helmet is often associated with the British Empire; we imagine the English gentry, soon to be dead from cholera, tramping through the tropical jungle while shaded by hats made from the dried pith of the Bengal spongewood. Pith is from the Old English piþa and like its modern counterpart referred to the core of a plant or, more generally, the essential part (thus our word pithy). Ultimately, piþa is from the West Germanic root *pithan-, which is also the source of our word pit, as in a hard seed or kernel.

And, no, *pithan- is not related to python, which is a Greek word named after the fabled serpent slain by Apollo near Delphi. Delphi's original name was Pytho, so named (possibly) because this is where the serpent rotted (the Greek verb meaning "to rot" is pythein). Per the OED
According to one form of the [Python] legend, the oracle originally belonged to or was guarded by the serpent, and, on the extermination of the latter, became the oracle of Apollo.
pith [Online Etymology Dictionary]
pith helmet [Wikipedia]
West Germanic languages [Wikipedia]
python [OED]
python [Online Etymology Dictionary]
Python [Wikipedia]

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:: posted by David, 8:01 AM


What about when you pith a frog in bio? Is that also related?
Blogger Loocite, at 10:20 AM  
Sure thing! To pith something is to kill it by piercing its spinal cord. So, it goes along with the sense of pith meaning the "core" or "essential part." (The verb is relatively recent, from 1805)
Blogger David, at 3:56 PM  

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