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.