Earlier on today, we tweeted this:
It’s easy to presume that pen and pencil are related words, but in fact they’re completely unconnected. Pen comes from the Latin word penna, meaning “feather”, making it an etymological cousin of words like pennant, empennage, and even penne pasta. The earliest pens were quills—long birds’ feathers dipped in liquid ink—and it’s from there that the modern pen eventually evolved.
Pencil, on the other hand, comes from penicillus, which was originally the Latin word for artist’s paintbrush. Brushes were used as writing implements long before modern pencils of lead, chalk and eventually graphite were developed in the Middle Ages, and it’s from there that the modern pencil emerged in the late 1500s.
In turn, the Latin word penicillus is a diminutive of penis—no, honestly—which, besides the obvious, could also be used to mean “tail” in Latin. But how did a word meaning “little tail” also come to mean “paintbrush”? Well, picture a lion’s tail, with a soft tuft of hair at the end of it, and you can probably see the resemblance. Just make sure you’re only picturing its tail...