Japan Currents, September, 1997

What's in a Word?

Pens and Pencils

One of the reasons I enjoy researching word histories is the regular discovery that some things I take for granted just aren't so. Like the connection between pens and pencils. After all, the words sound similar, the objects themselves look about the same, and they are used for roughly the same purpose. Common sense suggests that they have the same linguistic roots, and that they're just two slightly different versions of the same thing... Strike one for common sense.

The word pen had already been borrowed into Japanese 200 years ago, along with the object itself. But what did a pen of that era look like? Basically... a feather! The word made its way into English long ago, originally from the Latin penna, for 'feather, wing,' and for over a 1000 years pens were indeed made of feathers, cut into appropriate shapes for handling and holding ink. Quill pens, usually of goose feathers, were used in western countries until about a hundred years ago. What we think of as pens today are mainly the results of 19th C. solutions to two problems: quills are relatively soft, and so tend to wear out fairly quickly, and they have to be continually dipped in ink.

The 19th century was a technological century, and inventors made rapid progress. They began by cutting up the quill into separate, replaceable points, then coating them with gold to make them last. They tried making the nibs of horn and tortoise shell, with small diamond or ruby tips, and eventually developed machine-made steel pen points. But the major breakthrough was Waterman's first successful fountain pen, in 1884, with the great advantage of carrying its own ink supply: a portable pen. 50 years later, ball-point pens (also invented in the 19th C.) were in use around the world. Today's fiber-tipped pens date from the 1960s.

So a pen was originally a feather. What about the pencil? A kind of little pen? Wrong again! In fact, for most of its 600-year history in English, the word referred to a small, fine-pointed brush used in painting. It comes from penicillus, the diminutive form of the Latin word for tail, penis, and meant, literally, 'little tail.' (This same Latin word gives us penicillin, from the brush-like shape of the Penicillium mold from which it is produced.)

Though modern pens replaced the quills, until fairly recently the little 'pencil' brushes existed side by side with what we now think of as pencils, and these were commonly called "lead pencils." As a school-boy I was taught that the 'lead' in a pencil isn't lead at all, but actually graphite. Then why is it called lead? In the mid-16th C., a large, extremely pure graphite deposit was found in England, and an economical method was developed for wrapping the graphite in wood and producing the writing instrument (which had already existed for some time). This became the major European source for pencils, and at that time, graphite (from the Greek word graphein, 'to write'), was thought to be a form of lead. It wasn't until the 18th century that graphite was shown to be a form of carbon, but by then "lead pencil" was already common usage.

Now if a pencil was referred to as a 'lead pencil' in English, then certainly the Japanese word enpitsu must be a direct translation: en (namari) 'lead' + hitsu (fude) 'brush'. Why else would they make the same 'mistake'? Strike two for common sense. Enpitsu apparently dates back to the 13th or 14th C., for a type of powdered lead-based ink, used with a brush, and with no connection to the English word pencil. The loan-words penshiru, rīdo peneshiru (lead pencil), and penseru appear in Meiji documents, but today enpitsu has replaced them all in regular use, with one exception: While I personally wondered why a mechanical pencil is called shāpu-pen (sharp pen) in Japanese, most Japanese are probably aware that it's just another case of word-shortening, from the original form, shāpu-penshiru, dating back some 30 years.

So now I've learned that pens were feathers and pencils were brushes, and once more that words with similar shapes and meanings don't necessarily share their linguistic roots. That a Japanese 'lead brush' was not related to an English 'lead pencil,' and that only one of them has anything to do with lead at all. And that a 'sharp-pen' was never a pen. Once again, my own common sense has proved an inadequate substitute for research, and the history of words has led to more interesting discoveries... about things we take for granted.

Stephen Trussel

1/2/2012 - Govind Kharbanda wrote suggesting that the Japanese word シャープ・ペン (shāpu-pen) comes from the name of the company (Sharp) that invented it.

Nobuyuki Tomioka found in a Wikipedia article that though the mechanical pencil was not invented by Sharp, it was renovated in 1915 by a company which later changed their name to Sharp for the name of their product. The company, originally named 早川金属工業 (Hayakawa Kinzoku Kōgyō) first called their product 早川式繰出鉛筆 (Hayakawa-shiki Kuridashi Enpitsu), changing it later to エバー・レディ・シャープ・ペンシル (Ebā-Redi-Shāpu-Penshiru). Hayakawa-shiki Kuridashi Enpitsu means Hayakawa-style propelling pencil. Ebā-Redi-Shāpu-Penshiru is for Ever Ready Sharp Pencil. According to Wikipedia, the mechanical pencil was trademarked "Eversharp Pencil" in the United States in 1837 or 1838.

(Tomioka also reports that "young people today call the mechanical pencil shāpen", and that he's personally never heard shāpupen, but only the full form, shāpu-penshiru.)