February 5, 2013

The Pithy Version

I love Elizabeth Zimmerman. What knitter doesn't? And what knitter doesn't love her not only for her contributions to knitting, but her incredibly spunky, intelligent and unabashed spirit? If one were going to be a visionary of any ilk, one would need to possess these qualities.

I marvel at her.

One of my favorite things about her is her writing ability. Her vocabulary seems vast, educated and all around clever. She was a master of word choice. My favorite word she uses very frequently (at least in the Knitter's Almanac, which I have been reading!) is "pithy."

The word pithy, for me, has always conjured up a sort of sarcastic tone. I am not certain where I got the feeling that it was sarcastic, but I think it came from my experiences with one of my high school teachers, Mr. Walker.

Mr. Walker had an I-rule-the-show-Phil Donahue style approach to class lectures and a very bald head, which was always covered in a bike helmet upon his arrival at school. Daily, he would glide silently on his bike through the halls at 7a.m., and right into our first period classroom, stopping abruptly at the front. He would then swing his leg off the bike haughtily in grand jesture. Once both his feet were planted firmly on the floor, he would stare at us cooly as if to say, "Yes, I did ride my bike here. No doubt, you all used up a few quarts of our precious, limited oil resources to get here. And you probably all polluted the air as you did so." If he were teaching today, he might also add something about a carbon footprint.

He was a Unitarian divorcee and a hipster to boot. A 2013-style hipster in 1986, he was a man ahead of his time. He loved to show off his knowledge to others in a way that dared his audience to just try and challenge his brainpower. He enjoyed quoting lofty writings and would make references during class that he knew were way past our young experiences or knowledge. He knew we could never beat him. To pour a bit of salt into this wound, he liked to employ infrequently used vocabulary during lectures to intimidate us further. And he most definitely used "pithy" at some point...with a sneer. No question.

That was my first experinece hearing that word, pithy; I bought and believed the tone and intent, but not the context. Still, it is not Mr. Walker's fault that I did know the definition of this word as I came across it afresh in Ms. Zimmerman's writings. I should have long ago been a good student of critical thinking and looked it up. Mr. Walker would have wanted that, but if I had, then I would not have a story today. So I will thank him here and move on.

While reading The Knitter's Almanac lately, I kept seeing the word "pithy" over and over again. I have read in the past somewhere about Elizabeth Zimmerman's trouble with those who would publish her patterns. I have heard that people thought she should have kept her directions short when writing her patterns as they did not think her conversational style would sell them. So, when I read each story in Knitter's Almanac containing the patterns, which were followed by a set of directions entitled "pithy" version, I misunderstood.

Given the fact that she was, indeed, a woman ahead of her time (sort of like Mr W.),  her intelligence and vocabulary, and what I perceived to be her greater understanding of her own circumstances and the future of knitting, I thought she was sort of thumbing her nose at the publishers as she would first lay out her rambling, lovely and smart stories and patterns, only to follow them with the "pithy directions."

I thought this was a good joke. Then I looked up the word.

It means "concise," "to the point." In short, just a condensed version of something that only contains the facts or the meaty stuff. This was a little disappointing to me. I am learning--as many others have done before me--to hold her up as a pioneer, and maybe as one who just might have thumbed her nose in the faces of those possessing lesser understanding than her. Maybe even with a little defiance. She knew where things were going in the knitting future, and she knew where she was going and who she was.

I sat in my disappointment for only a moment, because I then searched again for the word. And I found this:


  [pith-ee]  Show IPA
adjective, pith·i·er, pith·i·est.
brief, forceful, and meaningful in expressionfull of vigor, substance, or meaning; terse; forcible: apithy observation.

Vigor? Forceful? Substance? Now that is more like it. 

Sometimes "pithy" was all she needed to say after all.

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