If copy editors have pet peeves – as they do, I must tell you, dear reader – they also have favorite errors, errors they are fascinated to see people fall into. Dawn McIlvain Stahl posted an item at copyediting.com a few weeks ago on how people are writing pixilated when the word they really need, she says, is pixelated. And after some research, I can attest that the problem is even more complex than her item suggests.
Let's start with pixie, which Merriam-Webster Online traces back to 1630 and defines as a "fairy; specifically: a cheerful mischievous sprite," and secondarily as "a usually petite vivacious woman or girl."
The Online Etymology Dictionary identifies pyske, a Swedish term for a "small fairy" as a possible source for pixie, but also suggests the word may be of Celtic origin, from Cornwall.
Pixilated, meaning "mildly insane, bewildered, tipsy," goes back to 1848, and is traced to "pixie," plus "-lated" as a verb ending, analogous to "titillated." There's thought to be a bit of influence from "pixie-led," a term used to mean "led astray by pixies," as well.
The Online Etymology Dictionary also notes that pixilated is "a New England dialect word popularized [in] 1936 by [the] movie 'Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.' " Imagine the white-haired guy in the old Pepperidge Farm ads as a tweedy professor knocked off balance by the new hottie at the college library, and you get a good visual for "pixilated."
Pixelated, on the other hand, is a technical term, coined in 1969, according to Ms. Stahl. It's a portmanteau word, made up of "pix" (for pics or pictures) plus "el" for "element," plus a verb ending. A pixel is the smallest discrete unit of a digital image. A pixelated image is one "in which the pixels are visible to the naked eye, indicating that the image was distorted by being enlarged or used in a way that was inappropriate for a low-resolution graphic."
We're familiar with the blurring of sensitive imagery in news photos or video clips: nudity, violence, or the faces of criminal suspects. Wikipedia says that the term for this technique, which can be seen as representing either "editorial standards" or "censorship," is pixelization. Some other sources agree, such as photography.com, which points out that there's an equivalent process for digitally muffling offensive or sensitive audio. But the distinction between pixelation and pixelization seems not to have quite hardened yet.
And just to mix it up a little more, there turns out to be another kind of pixilation. To go back 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."
I'm going to guess that the "el" terms – pixelate and pixelize – will prove more important over the long term. But for now, I realize as I conclude this column, the default settings of our auto-correct software may be back with Mr. Deeds rather than with 21st-century graphic technology. I suspect that some of the "pixilation" that Stahl and other editors spot may be the result of incorrect "auto-correct." Writers have been pixilated – led astray by the spell-check fairy – without their even noticing.