The title character of the 1936 film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, according to the two old maids (remember that this is 1936) who testify against him in the climactic courtroom scene, is "pixilated". A psychiatrist in attendance offers the following clarification:
Perhaps I can explain, Your Honor. The word pixilated is an early American expression, derived from the word 'pixies,' meaning elves. They would say, 'The pixies had got him,' as we nowadays would say a man is 'balmy.' *
However, no earlier record of the word is to be found. The original 1909 edition of Webster's New International, which includes the noun pixy with alternate spelling pixie, lists no derived verb or adjective. The Second Edition, published two years before the release of Frank Capra's film, defines pixy-led as "led astray by pixies; bewildered." But it was not until the New Words section was added in 1939 that pixilated appeared in the Webster series, defined as "slightly unbalanced; balmy; daffy." It is possible that the word was contrived by Robert Riskin, author of the Mr. Deeds screenplay. (It does not appear in Clarence Budington Kelland's short story Opera Hat, * on which the screenplay was loosely based.) If it was in fact this film, as suggested by Pauline Kael's review *, that introduced the term into the American vernacular, this might explain the subsequent uncertainty regarding its spelling: pixillated is commonly found in print along with pixilated (Riskin's spelling), and both are listed in Webster's Third.
Here in the digital age, further confusion has resulted from the spread of a bit of jargon associated with the technology of raster imaging. * A raster file consists of a set of color encodings, displayed on a screen as a rectangular array of individually colored elements called pixels. The size of a pixel may vary (a 640 by 480 grid is typical for a 13-inch monitor); smaller pixels yield an image of higher resolution. When the resolution is so poor that individual pixels are easily distinguishable visually, the image is said to be pixelated.
This neologism is frequently confused with its older homonym. The Xerox Customer Support Center, for example, devotes a page of trouble-shooting documentation to the symptom "Digital camera images print out pixilated." *
An April, 2004 Saturday Night Live comedy skit depicted then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, portrayed by guest host Janet Jackson, attempting to placate her 9-11 Commission interrogators by baring her breast, in a repeat performance of Ms. Jackson's celebrated Superbowl XXXVIII half-time stunt. On this occasion, however, in deference to SNL's more fastidious viewers, the critical portion of the video was intentionally blurred by a marked reduction in resolution. The episode was summarized the next morning in a Washington Post headline:
Janet Jackson on 'SNL,' Back in a Pixelated Flash *Meanwhile, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that
... she went through the motion of exposing her pixilated, bra-covered breast and saying, "Live from New York, it's 'Saturday Night.'An Associated Press headline contained yet another variant:
Janet Jackson bares pixillated breast on SNL *
It is clear that the (alleged) pixilation of Longfellow Deeds and the (undisputed) pixelation of Janet Jackson are unrelated phenomena and that their homonymic designations are etymologically independent. If there is any conclusion at all to be drawn from these ramblings, it is that the orthographic distinction between these words, as inherited from their respective roots, is worth preserving.