Friday, September 22, 2006

Shortchanged


Pygmy comes to us from the Greek where it was a measure of length from the elbow to the knuckles. It was also used to designate a fist. Ancient history and tradition (Homer and Herodotus among other writers) posited pygmies in Ethiopia and India. European explorers first encountered races of very short people in the 19th century in Africa.

While it started as a reference to physical height, it soon transferred to anything small of its kind, then to the insulting lack of intellectual or moral depth, as in pygmy-minded and pygmy-spirited. Pygmoid and pygmean mean having the characteristics of a pygmy.

Getting back to the influence of fist (the Greek stem pug-), we find pygmachy, an obsolete word meaning a boxing match, pugilist, a boxer, pug-glove, a boxing glove, pugil stick, a military training device, pugnacious, tending to use one’s fists, and the obsolete pugillary, a small writing tablet held in the hand.


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