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shameless pleading

Pillow.

Field of dreams.

Dear Word Detective: How did the “pillow” get its name? In my medical terminology class, my professor seems to think that it was derived from the term “pilo,” which means “hair,” but we can’t seem to find anything to back this up. — Shelly.

This is one of those questions that, like a Russian nesting doll, just get better and better as you unpack them. First, I will assume that taking a medical terminology class means that you are in the process of preparing for an occupation in the health care industry. If so, congratulations. You will be joining just about the only sector of the US economy that is actually turning a profit, and thus you may be able to afford health insurance. If, however, you are planning to work in hospital administration, you should be aware that, within the walls of a hospital, there is no such thing as a “pillow.” They are known, I believe, as “cranial support systems,” and are usually billed at $250 per day, listed on patient billing statements right between the ten-dollar aspirin and the $25 bathroom charge.

Secondly, I am a little disturbed by your professor’s insistence that “pillow” is rooted in a word for “hair.” Traditionally, early in pillow history, those of the rich were stuffed with feathers or down, while the poor made do with sacks of straw, but I find no evidence of hair pillows, for which I suggest we should all be thankful. Incidentally, did you know that George W. Bush has a pillow named “Pilly,” which he takes with him on all his trips? Mine is named “Pibby,” cost six bucks at Target, and never gets to go anywhere. Both George and I also routinely eat peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast. Spooky, eh?

It is true that “pilo,” a form rooted in the Latin “pilus,” meaning “hair,” is found in medical terms such as “pilomotor,” denoting a muscle that moves a hair (as in when your dog notices the postal carrier). But “pillow” comes from the Latin “pulvinus,” meaning “cushion,” and came into English in the 14th century from the Old English form “pyle.” By the way, the word “cushion” (at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary) comes from the Latin “coxa,” meaning “hip or thigh.”

So there’s no “hair” there in “pillow,” but at least your professor isn’t completely nuts, merely looking at the wrong Latin root. If, however, he or she starts declaring that “femur” is somehow connected with either “female” or “lemur,” it may be time to tiptoe out of the classroom.

3 comments to Pillow.

  • beehappy

    My grandmother grew up in a village in Belarus. And she has told me many times that when she was a little girl (pre WWII) they used to collect the hair that they cut and make pillows out of it. I thought it was kind of nasty, but it isn’t the first time that I have heard of making stuff out of human hair (Don’t native americans make stuff out of hair too?). So while I believe you that the word pillow did not come from the word for hair, it is not unreasonable that peasants in Europe (at least Eastern Europe) used to stuff pillows with hair.

  • Here is an interesting observation…Hair in Spanish is translated as Pelo.

  • Denni

    Ever thought about it from biblical angle? First record of someone using a “pillow” was Jacob when he had the vision of the heavenly staircase in genesis. When he woke up, he set the stone he had rested his head on, up as a pillar to mark the place where he had met with God. Maybe there’s something in that! :D

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