19th Century Pixelation

“Oh, no! The image got all pixelated!” That’s the distressed cry of digital photographers who discover an image is too low resolution to be displayed in large format. With too few pixels, each pixel (or minute element of a digital image) is enlarged enough to become annoyingly obvious with jagged stair steps where there should be smooth curves. Technically this irritating occurrence is called “aliasing,” but the preponderance of pesky pixels produced the popular expression “pixelation.”

But the word “pixilated” was used as early as 1848. How is that possible? Photography was in its infancy. That was even before film photography. And the only digital photography occurred when a photographer accidentally stuck his finger in front of the lens. So whence “pixelated”? The word, which is also spelled “pixilated” or “pixillated,” come from “pixie,” not “pixel.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “Chiefly U.S. regional. Slightly crazed; bewildered, confused; fey, whimsical; (also) intoxicated.  In Ross Macdonald’s Find a Victim (1954) are the lines, “‘Wasn’t he pretty drunk on Sunday?’ ‘He was pixilated all right,’ Jo said.”

“Pixelation” was used in relation to camera work before digital photography. According to Wikipedia, “Pixilation (from pixilated) is a stop motion technique where live actors are used as a frame-by-frame subject in an animated film, by repeatedly posing while one or more frame is taken and changing pose slightly before the next frame or frames… This technique is often used as a way to blend live actors with animated ones in a film..”

Even “pixel” predates digital photography. It was used as least since 1969 to mean ‘Each of the minute areas of uniform illumination of which the image on a television or computer screen.’ The word comes from “pix,” a colloquial abbreviation for “pictures” and “el” from “element.” Well, I admit I get rather pixilated when my pix are pixelated.

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3 Responses to 19th Century Pixelation

  1. The word pixillated comes up in the courtroom scene near the end of Frank Capra’s 1936 movie “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” when two elderly sisters proclaim the the main character, Longfellow Deeds, is pixillated. They go on to agree that the judge is pixillated too, as is everyone else except them.

  2. Allen says:

    I looked this up because I heard the term used in the Perry Mason episode “The Case of the Nebulous Nephew.” The meaning was along the lines of slightly crazed, bewildered and confused.

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