The Friday Fillip: We’re All Pixillated

It started with a pen — a uni-ball Jetstream, as it happens, an instrument that a panel of experts on The Wirecutter has ruled “the best affordable pen.” So, of course I promptly went out and acquired a uni-ball Jetstream pen, which, I’m happy to say, works a right proper treat.

Sometimes a pen is just a pen, as someone might once have said.

But not in this case, because I began wondering about what good a pen is nowadays. It’s useful for signing things, I suppose, but if John Gregory and other sensible modernizers have their way that archaism will soon be gone. And who does cursive writing anymore? We still print — i.e. write in block letters — but I wonder how long even that basic ability will last. After all, the Chinese (and to some extent the Japanese as well) are losing their ability to record words without the aid of machines.

And then it struck me that pens are good for doodling — and that doodling is good. What else are you going to do during those interminable meetings? Oh sure, you could check the sports scores or the latest celebrity news on your tablet computer; but all that flashing screen stuff is indiscreet, and when the meeting’s eventually done, what have you got to show for it? Whereas with doodles, you’ve got something approximating artwork at least. Even more important, perhaps, is the fact that doodling aids thought by diverting the part of you that distracts thought into more or less automatic behaviour, leaving your brain free to work.

The OED has a good, concise definition of “doodle” that touches on this valuable function:

An aimless scrawl made by a person while his mind is more or less otherwise applied.

Surprisingly, the first use of “doodle” in print, according to the OED, was as late as 1937 in R. M. Arundel’s Everybody’s Pixillated: “A ‘doodle’ is a scribbling or sketch made while the conscious mind is concerned with matters wholely unrelated to the scribbling.” That book is out of print, but thanks to the munificence of the internet, I found a couple of photographs (by Austin Keon) of a copy on Flickr:

Photo by Austin Kleon:

Photo by Austin Kleon: Click on image to enlarge.

As you can see, Arundel collected doodles by a host of famous people. (There’s a photo of a page of rather uninspired doodles by Theodore Roosevelt and Warren Harding.)

The “Pixillated” in the book title bugged me. I liked that it was a twist on the “pixelated” of modern graphics but I wanted to know what it had to do with doodles. The answer came from a suggestion in one of the comments on Keon’s photos. It turns out that both “pixillated” and “doodle” occurred in the movie Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, the famous flic in which Gary Cooper plays a misunderstood, eccentric naif. The bad guys try to cheat him out of his inheritance by having him declared mentally incompetent. In the ensuing trial he’s described by a couple of witnesses as “pixillated,” which is explained to mean under the influence of the fairies — “pixies.” Cooper-Deeds stays mute throughout the trial until at the very last he talks about his and other people’s “peculiar” behaviour, one example of which is “doodling,” an act that he has to explain to the court. This connection — between the book and the movie — is confirmed by a review of Arundel’s book that appeared in the Saturday Review when the reviewer refers to the movie as the current source of the word “pixillated” — but, curiously enough, doesn’t do the same for “doodle,” suggesting perhaps that the word was in common use before the movie.

I’ve included below that portion of the trial, which goes on for just over a minute. (Unfortunately the sound is out of sync.)

The kicker comes, however, when you learn that the movie was released in 1936, before the Arundel book cited by the OED and from which Arundel clearly got both “pixillated” and “doodle.” Does the OED acknowledge use in films, I wonder. Or must the word be penned?

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  1. In my summer job as an undergraduate (a while back, let’s just say before the computer era, but well after the film and Arundel’s book) I worked for a publishing company on a new edition of its dictionary. New words and new uses of existing words had to be attested by print examples. A corps of readers sent in quotations containing the candidate words, with sources, on index cards. It’s the same method that was used to compile words for the original OED, as described in Simon Winchester’s _The Professor and the Madman_.

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