More's the pithy

I recently discovered that I have long misunderstood the word pithy. I had thought it meant speech or writing that is insubstantial, shallow, long-winded, and poorly-written. In fact, it means the opposite. From the OED:

  • 2. a. Of language or style: full of concentrated meaning; conveying meaning forcibly through brevity of expression; concise, succinct; condensed in style; pointed, terse, aphoristic.

I'm not sure why I misunderstood it. My two made-up excuses are that the first time I heard it, it was being used sarcastically and I didn't realize that. Or, it's because pithy sounds like a negative word. It has an air of pathetic and pity to it.

Pithy comes from the word pith. When being used literally, the OED tells us pith means:

  • 1. The soft internal tissue of a plant part; esp. a central cylinder of parenchyma in a stem or root. Also: a layer of spongy tissue lining the rind in certain fruits, especially citrus fruits, in which it is white and often bitter-tasting.
  • 2. a. The soft interior tissue of an organ or animal structure; esp. the spongy core of a feather-shaft or the core of a horn.
  • 2. b. The substance occupying the spinal canal; the spinal cord.

That leads to these abstract uses:

  • 4. a. The innermost or central part of a thing; the essential or vital part; the spirit or essence; the core, the nub. Frequently in pith and marrow.
  • 4. b. to the pith: thoroughly, to the very core. (Obsolete usage)
  • 5. a. Physical strength or force; vigour, might; toughness, strength of character; mettle, backbone.
  • 5. b. Force, power, energy (of words, speech, etc.). In later use chiefly: the quality of conveying meaning forcibly through brevity of expression; succinctness, conciseness.

From Library of Congress

Pith also gives us pith helmet, which is "A lightweight hat made from dried pith and worn in tropical countries for protection from the sun." (American Heritage Dictionary). Like the one Teddy Roosevelt is wearing here in a 1910 hunting trip to Africa.

The OED says pith is a cognate* with the  "Middle Low German peddik, peddek, (rare) piddek medulla, bone marrow, spinal cord, inner part of a horn or quill." It goes on say:

  • Perhaps compare also West Frisian pit kernel of a fruit, medulla, energy (probably < Dutch), Middle Dutch pit kernel, stone of a fruit (1484; Dutch pit, pitte kernel, pip, stone of a fruit, pith, spirit, body), German regional (Low German: East Friesland) pit marrow, kernel, innermost or best part, strength. These show a different final consonant which would make them difficult to account for as cognates; the Dutch and German words do, however, show a semantic development very similar to that in English.

* The OED says a cognate, when referring to words, means: "Coming naturally from the same root, or representing the same original word, with differences due to subsequent separate phonetic development."