Sunday, 6 March 2011

Everything is interesting, including pencils

A really good way to look intelligent is to know the Latin origin of words, so that you can express the deeper meaning of a name. Unfortunately, 'pencil' is based on the Latin word for 'little tail'. So, instead of looking like Stephen Fry, I get to share the insight that you can make a pencil look like a small tail if you hold it near your buttocks. Excellent.
Apparently pencils were invented when a big pile of graphite was found in England and we decided to do stuff with it. It seems such pure graphite was rare, so we cunningly flooded the mine so no one could steal it. This is a wonderful defensive move and one which really should be used more often. Why don't we flood our offices at night to protect our computers? A quick drain before 9am and we're good to go.

Because of this brilliant move to protect our glorious graphite, England briefly had a monopoly on pencils. How this has never been made into a film, or long-running TV series I'll never know. Bastard pencil barons going to extreme measures to save their resources, while mocking the rest of the world for their lack of pencils. I'd watch it.

Questionable Wikipedia Fact Alert: Pencils are covered in wood to protect the weak and pathetic graphite inside. But at one point, the wood they used was in such short supply that pencil sharpeners were made illegal, to stop illegitimate and wasteful sharpenings. We sure do some extreme things to protect our pencils...

The colours coating the wood vary across the world. The market leader in each country picked a colour and then the lesser pencil producers copied it to look good. It's nice to know that cheap knock-offs have always been around. This is also why most pencils on TV are yellow, as this was America's classiest colour.

Pencils are also notable for using my least favourite system of categorisation.

Pencils are graded in terms of their hardness, or H. Also, their blackness, or B. Also there's a single rogue F for some reason. Why can't they pick a single unit of measurement and stick with it!

Unfortunately, most of my best pencil wielding years are behind me. They were of course used as training pens in schools, probably because they're mildly less dangerous (ignoring the common rumours that they were poisonous killers) and easier to erase than pens. When I think about it, there really is no need for pens. It's like we got overly cocky about our writing ability and decided we would do it without the safety of erasability. Like when kids don't want to wear a helmet while riding a bike.

Because of this test-pen status, I always think someone must be a bit childish and stupid when using a pencil. Like if they turned up to work with a Fireman Sam lunchbox. What have we done to the poor pencil! It was our oil. And now we've made it look pathetic.

There's still some love for pencils though. A quick Twitter sentiment test shows 61% of posts were positive. The rest were seemingly about losing pencils or jabbing themselves/someone else in the eye/thigh with one.

One advantage of being around so long is that they've worked their way into many a common phrase. So they don't just allow us to create beautiful things, they inspire it. For instance, just today there are two examples of people saying "Life without you would be like a broken pencil...pointless" to a loved one.

The sad thing of course, is that they sent that message over Twitter, so they don't actually need a pencil. In many respects, they are merely telling their dearest sweetheart that life is pointless with or without them.

Without pencils, there can be no romance!
Yes, the golden age of pencils are over. Replaced by a keyboard that no one would flood a mine, or make outrageous laws to protect. Pencils are now only to be used by artists, who look like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle loving idiots while doing so. Research does not lie!