Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Pitching Black Jets

Luke-a-lele left the following comment in the Alpha Agora, “…I never really understood the jet in jet black myself. I’ve never seen jet any other way in regards to color. Are there different shades/hues of black? To me black is black, though there are other words used, e.g., ebony.”

At about the same time, Bucknell librarian Bud Hiller dropped me the following note:

Pitch jet black“I was wondering about the phrase ‘pitch black’. In this case, is pitch specific to black as in “black as pitch”, or is it a modifier, as in ‘very black’?” [The question] came up when I was talking to someone in the library about how quiet it was at 7 AM and I described it as “pitch quiet”. Of course, pitch can also be used for sounds, and then we talked about it for half an hour.”

Well, jet is an extremely hard type of coal that can be carved and polished. It was once used for statuettes, buttons, and children’s toys. Pitch is another word tar, a word I heard a lot in my youth referring to substances for filling chinks in roofs or even covering roofs on commercial buildings, a word that I don’t think I’ve ever heard since moving north.

The first interesting question these expressions raise is why do these epithets remain after their critical constituent loses its original meaning? Words in compounds and crystalized phrases like these two generally disappear shortly after either constituent slips out of use. For instance, to and fro has become back and forth since we stopped using fro.

I can’t imagine anyone saying “pitch quiet”, knowing myself what pitch means unless, since the meaning of pitch has been lost in most US dialects, the assumption is that pitch means “very”. Well, it does, sort-of.

The possibility of pitch becoming an adverb meaning “very” arises from the second interesting question expressions like these raise: if jet and pitch are themselves black, why do we need to repeat the concept of blackness? It is like saying “as black as something black”. Prescriptive grammarians have tried for centuries to rid the language of redundancy for logical reasons, but redundancy is the very stuff and grammar that distinguishes it from logic and other mental processes.

Repetition (redundancy) is interpreted by all human languages as emphasis. That is why we say things like “very, very good” and “a red, red rose”, or even “a drinkable wine”, when the only purpose for wine is drinking. “Drinkable” is built into the definition of wine. Jet black and pitch black are another face of emphatic redundancy commonly found in languages.

Languages also love to specify variable qualities like colors, moods, sounds by comparing them with familiar objects in our lives: dirty as a pig, eat like a horse, fly like the wind. The problem with these two expressions is that the objects of comparison are no longer familiar.

One Response to “Pitching Black Jets”

  1. Stargzer Says:

    “Jet” is also a magazine marketed to African-Americans, as is its sister publication “Ebony.”

    I like “pitch quiet,” although I see it as more of a pun, playing off of “pitch black” meaning “extremely dark.” Somehow, I’d think of “pitch quiet” being the lack of sound in the middle of the night rather than 7:00 am, following the lead of “pitch dark” describing a dark night.

    Colors: Jet black; Pitch black; Coal black; Gloss black; Flat black. However, I never hear Ebony black, only Ebon.

    Nouns: Carbon black; Lampblack (soot).

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