• pencil •
Pronunciation: pen-sêl • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A narrow cylindrical object encasing a core of material, such as carbon or colored wax, that is capable of making a mark; used in writing, drawing and the like. 2. Any narrow cylindrical object, as a pencil of light shooting through a nail hole.
Notes: We offer today's Good Word to warn our dear readers of the dangers in spelling this word. A pensil (also spelled pencel) is a narrow streamer men once carried into battle atop their spears and lances. If the wind was not blowing, a pensil hangs pencile (loosely) from its perch. Remember to spell today's word pencil and you may use it as a verb in a special sense, "to write in temporarily", as to pencil someone in for lunch if you are not sure you can make the date.
In Play: Today's Good Word has such a narrow meaning it is difficult to find figurative uses other than a few off-color ones that have been used already. "Manny, why do you have those pencils in your nose?" "It keeps alligators from taking over the world." "That's absurd!" "When was the last time you saw an alligator around here?" But, if you care to try, the figurative property of pencils is their slenderness: "Don't laugh, old pencil-legs over there, as you call him, is a dancing genius."
Word History: In Middle English this word, spelled pencel then, meant "artist's brush". It was borrowed from Old French pincel or peincel, related to Modern French peinture "painting". French inherited the word from Latin penicillus "little tail, little brush", the diminutive of peniculus, itself the diminutive of penis "tail, brush". The antibacterial antibiotic, penicillin, gets its name from fungi of the genus Penicillium, so named for their brush-like appearance. (We are delighted that Mary Boser suggested this word rather than just pencil it into her schedule.)
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This word's history can easily lead to many meandering chains of thought. My only comment, however, is to say there is another derogatory hyphenated term that uses it; pencil-neck. I've always thought of it as applying to nerds, but I now gather it can go much further.
Life is like playing chess with chessmen who each have thoughts and feelings and motives of their own.
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