A friend of mine used to share an orange every day with a co-worker, and they did not each eat half of the flesh. No, my friend ate the flesh and the co-worker ate the pith–the white spongy stuff between the flesh and the rind. This started a conversation about the word “pith.”
My friend remembered it from his high school biology class, when they had to kill the frog they were about to dissect. Let me repeat, there was a time when American high school students had to kill the frog they were about to dissect. Now, I’ve enjoyed all the dissections I’ve done, in both high school and college, but I don’t know that I could’ve done that. Anyway, they were told to pith their frogs: to push a spike through the back of the amphibian neck and down the spinal column. I’d never heard that use of the word, but, indeed: pith is an archaic noun for spinal marrow, and a verb for severing or piercing said spinal column to kill or immobilize an animal.
So as a noun, pith is the spongy tissue inside the rind of citrus plants and spinal marrow. But that’s not all.
It also refers to the spongy cellular tissue inside the stems of vascular plants: the stuff that draws up and stores water and nutrients from the soil.
It is also used in the writing world. It can refer to the essence, the most important point of an argument, as well as a concise way of of writing, “a pithy saying.”
As a verb, it’s a term for removing pith from citrus fruits and for severing the spinal column to kill an animal.
And let us not forget the pith helmet. I saw an elderly man paying for his groceries last week who was wearing a pith helmet, and it made me happy. They are made of the pith of the sola plant.
What on earth do all these uses have in common?
Cores; things that bring life/liveliness.
In the plant world it distributes and stores what is needed for that plant to live (citrus pith apparently contains many nutrients). An alternative name for the pith in vascular plants: the medulla. Which makes me think of the pithing my friend had to do to the poor frog–the medulla oblongata being located at the base of the skull, right where he was directed to stick the spike.
In the animal world (in its archaic use) it was probably believed to be the core of the spine that transmitted important stuff (nutrients? information?) to and from the brain. I have since learned that we no longer talk of spinal marrow at all; that the soft tissue inside our bones is mainly found in the hip bones, breast bone, and skull.
In the writing world it is the core, the center of an argument, or a way of making the argument lively and memorable.
So that’s the little rabbit hole I went down after a brief conversation this weekend. Aren’t words fun? Do you know any other words with a variety of entertaining meanings?