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Pixelated vs. pixilated

Though pixelated is the standard spelling of the word meaning rendered with visible pixels, there’s a good reason that spell check does not catch pixilated. Pixilated is an old, seldom-used Americanism dating from the middle of the 19th century and peaking (in this use) in the middle 20th century. It meant (1) crazed, bewildered, or whimsical, or (2) intoxicated.1 

Pixilated derives from the noun pixie, denoting the mythical, mischievous creature.2 One who is pixilated is under the sway of a figurative pixie or behaving in a pixielike manner. The word’s exact origins are not known, but it might have been a fanciful coinage influenced by other -ated words such as elated and titillated. The phrasal adjective pixie-led (which is listed in the OED, with the earliest example being from 1659) might also be a source.3

Whether anyone still uses pixilated this way is difficult to say. In historical Google News searches, most of the instances of pixilated used this way are from the 1930s and ’40s, with only a few scattered examples from after 1950. There are no easily found examples in recent sources, though there could be a few buried among the thousands of instances of pixilated used in place of pixelated.

In any case, pixilated very often appears in place of pixelated in writing from the last couple of decades, and many dictionaries list it as a variant. So to call pixilated a misspelling of pixelated would be unfair, even if the spelling is not exactly logical (pixel having an in the second syllable).


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Examples

There will be gadgets calculated to shame even the pixilated genius of Rube Goldberg. [Spokane Daily Chronicle (1937)]

The boys could catch up on chemistry and Sallust while a staff of pixilated publicity men made the welkin ring with news of their triumphs. [Youngstown Vindicator (1941)]

And I suggest that your dad have a talk with his pixilated sister and urge her to enlist the services of an accountant or an attorney. [Calgary Herald (1961)]

This small, pixilated cat was believed to ward off gremlins and goblins and even avert shipwrecks. [Milwaukee Journal (1967)]

Time was when anyone we thought was pixilated was merely called nuts, screwy, or wacky. [Kentucky New Era (1980)]

References

1. “Pixilated” in the OED (subscription required)
2. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology
3. “Pixie-led” in the OED (subscription required)

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Comments

  1. Typo: First word, second paragraph should be Pixilated.

    As my first comment on the blog, I’d like to thank all the contributors. This is a great resource.

  2. Lindsay Aiello says:

    That’s really interesting! I’m going to use this word and bring it back into fashion.

  3. Compare pollen, pollinated.

    • geekahedron says:

      “Pollination” ultimately derives from the Latin “pollen” but gets to us through different channels than the English word “pollen” itself. “Pollinate” and its other various forms are merely a back-formation from “pollinate.” It’s certainly interesting that the spellings of the two words never came to terms.

      This, on the other hand, is the inverse case where two completely different words (pixel and pixie) beget formations that sound so similar as to be mistaken for one another. Also very interesting!

  4. I noticed that misspelling too, “pixilated nudity” is very often misspelled. That’s why I came here to check.

  5. It was used in the movie ‘Mr. Deeds goes to town’ during the courtroom scene.

  6. My sister was just on the phone with customer service for some company
    and she kept asking the person on the other end to repeat themselves
    because they sound pixelated. I remember hearing “old timer” characters
    from old black and white movies and TV shows use this word to mean
    “drunk”, and so I laughed and said “Is she drunk? Are you accusing the
    customer service girl of having a phone in one hand and a bottle of gin
    in the other and drinking heavily on the job??” And I said it loud
    enough so that my sister rushed out of the room, embarrassed. The word
    “pixelated” got me pixilated.

  7. Dustin Winters says:

    Re: “In any case, pixilated very often appears in place of pixelated in writing from the last couple of decades”. Older version of Microsoft spell-check, until the mid 2000’s, did not include pixelated in their dictionary. Instead, it would suggest ‘pixilated’ and many users would simply assume it was correct. Many instances of pixilated referring to pixels is just due to spell check gone bad and the author and/or editor not knowing any better. What would be ‘unfair’ is allowing microsoft’s lapses to alter the english language (more than it already has).

    • /pixilated/– /pixelated/ gets a hearing several times in the Frank Capra film about Mr Deeds, 1936. Gary Cooper is pixilated. He points out how common pixilation is in others.
      Then there’s /piliated/, no /x/, for a kind of woodpecker.

      • Julio Parker says:

        I think you may have just saved me from driving myself crazy. I have been trying to remember, for several months, an old movie were a couple of older ladies described someone as being “pixilated”. That was the only scene I remembered.

  8. Jane Harrison Wells says:

    Very interesting. I wonder if pixilated is the origin of the slang term “pickled” for drunk.

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