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What Does ‘Pitch Black’ Mean?

The sky is so dark in the Northern Hemisphere these days that it feels pitch black by 5:00 PM. Here's why call it "pitch black."

By
Samantha Enslen, Writing for
2-minute read
Episode #750
an image of pitch blackness
The Quick And Dirty

Pitch is made by distilling wood tar, and it is, indeed, black or at least dark brown. The phrase "pitch black" simply describes a type of blackness, just as "butter yellow" and "sky blue" describe other colors.

If you’re a listener in the Northern Hemisphere, this Saturday will be the winter solstice—the shortest day of the year. If you live there, solstice comes every year on December 21 or 22, the day when the path of the sun is the farthest south from that hemisphere. If you live in the other half of the world, it comes on June 20 or 21, when the sun is the farthest north from you. 

Either way, that day has the least daylight and the longest night.  

If you look outside that evening, especially if it’s cloudy, you might think to yourself that the sky is pitch black. Then, if you’re like me, you start wondering what “pitch” is, and if it’s really black, and where that phrase came from anyway.

Here’s the scoop. 

Pitch is indeed a black—or very dark brown substance. It’s created from distilling wood tar—that’s the resinous goo that drips from some coniferous trees. It’s been used for centuries to caulk the seams of ships and to waterproof other types of wood.

“Pitch” is an ancient word. It can be traced back to the classical Latin word “pic,” and it’s probably even older than that, because it shares the same Indo-European root as the same word in ancient Greek. It’s first use in English—at least, as recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary—dates all the way back to Old English. The phrase “black as pitch” appears later, in the 1300s, and the adjective “pitch black” appears yet later, in the 1500s. The spelling at that time occasionally—and probably accidentally—reflected the Latin version. A Scottish poem from that time describes the night as being “grim an’ ghastly an’ pick black”—spelled P-I-C-K—as opposed to “pitch” black.  

By the way, the verb “to pitch” sounds the same as the noun, and is spelled the same, but it has a different root word: the Middle English “picch," which is probably related to “pick.” Just a reminder that not all words that look the same have the same origin.

Long story short, your tidbit for today is that something pitch black is intensely black or dark. Think of a piece of black velvet, held under the covers, in a darkened room. That captures the feeling of pitch blackness.

Enjoy your winter solstice, everyone, and stay warm and safe.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Sources

Dent, Susie. Pitch. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 19th ed. Chambers Harrap, 2012.

Encyclopedia Britannica, online edition. Pitch (subscription required, accessed November 15, 2019).

Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. Pitch (subscription required, accessed November 15, 2019).

Ross, Alexander. The Fortunate Shepherdess: A Pastoral Tale; in Three Cantos, pp. 58, 1768. 

About the Author

Samantha Enslen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.

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