The inglorious hairball
Consider the tiny the word pill.
Meaning a small ball or round mass of medicine, the word pill showed up in English about 1400 after a tour through Middle Dutch, Middle Low German & Middle French from its humble beginnings in Latin, where its literal translation was little ball, yet even back then it was primarily used to refer to a small ball of medicine. Looking further back on the language tree, many etymologists believe pilula, that Latin word meaning little ball, came from the word pilus, which meant hair. These same etymologists are pretty sure words for hair and ball were so closely intertwined because of the inglorious hairball, which is apparently not just a modern problem.
Though we’re not entirely sure, it’s believed Latin hairballs may have also been the source of the word pearl, appearing in English in the 1200s after making its way through Vulgar Latin, Medieval Latin & Old French.
In the 1300s, the word pellet appeared after a bit of time in Vulgar Latin & Old French, also likely born of the hairball.
Some possible, yet faux siblings include pillar, pillory, & pile. These all come from another Latin root pila, meaning stone barrier or heap. The name Pilar came from these, as Pilar is a reference to a pillar carved with the image of the Virgin Mary. Another faux sibling of pill is the word pilaf, which comes through Turkish from Persian & refers to a delicious rice dish completely devoid of hairballs.
And for our last grandchild of the inglorious hairball, we come to the verb pillage, which appeared in English in the 1300s, meaning the act of plundering. Pillage came through Old French from Latin & most likely came from the idea of stripping someone of his/her skin or hair, an unseemly act providing another inglorious image. Please accept my apologies.
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Big thanks to this week’s sources: Etymonline, Wordnik, Think Baby Names, Merriam-Webster, & the OED.
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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