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Google defines pithy as "(of language or style) terse and vigorously expressive."

However from the meaning of pith with respect to fruits, the word doesn't seem to contain the attribute of being terse. i.e. when describing a sentence or exposition as pithy I would be figuratively saying it contains a lot of pith/meat.

So I'm wondering if being terse or succinct is a connotation of pithy, or is it not necessary. Can a long sentence or exposition that has substance be called pithy?

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    Maybe you should also wonder does terse need to mean short? – Jim May 16 at 2:57
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    Many words, including pithy, have more than one meaning. Context determines which of their meanings are relevant. – Jason Bassford May 16 at 4:26
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    Try me. Write a sentence that you think is pithy but long, and I'll tell you if I still find it pithy. – aparente001 May 16 at 4:40
  • @JasonBassford I know, but for pithy, it seems to me that the meaning with respect to sentences/exposition is a figurative use of the word pithy, which with respect to fruits would just mean that it has a lot of pith. – liyuan May 16 at 7:17
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    A lot of pith for the size of the fruit / a lot of meaning for the number of words. – user339660 May 16 at 11:13
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So I'm wondering if being terse or succinct is a connotation of pithy, or is it not necessary. Can a long sentence or exposition that has substance be called pithy?

The OED's entries include (emphasis mine):

pithy, adj.
2a. Of language or style: full of concentrated meaning; conveying meaning forcibly through brevity of expression; concise, succinct; condensed in style; pointed, terse, aphoristic.
Source: Oxford English Dictionary

Where all the highlighted terms convey a sense of not using more words than is necessary. So, while a phrase/sentence described as pithy will often be a relatively short, I do not believe it has to be. A longer sentence could still be described as pithy, provided it is about as short as it can be while still getting its meaning across. Contrast with wordy, verbose, long-winded etc.


Etymologically speaking, the "terse, succinct" meaning would seem to come (at least indirectly) from the "fruit" related meaning. For pith the OED has as a "concrete use":

I. Concrete uses.
1. The soft internal tissue of a plant part; esp. a central cylinder of parenchyma in a stem or root. Also: a layer of spongy tissue lining the rind in certain fruits, especially citrus fruits, in which it is white and often bitter-tasting.

with dated citations back to c1150 (and an earlier undated use). For its "abstract" use (as pertains to sentences), it has both:

II. Abstract uses.
4.a. The innermost or central part of a thing; the essential or vital part; the spirit or essence; the core, the nub. Frequently in pith and marrow.

5.b. Force, power, energy (of words, speech, etc.). In later use chiefly: the quality of conveying meaning forcibly through brevity of expression; succinctness, conciseness.
First emphasis theirs; second mine

with dated uses back to around 1425 for sense 4.a. and 1531 for sense 5.b..

There would seem to be a progression from pith meaning the inner/internal tissue (of a plant), through the innermost or central part (the core or essence) before getting to "core" meaning of a phrase or sentence, by dint of it being brief, concise or succinct.

  • It's refreshing to come across a really satisfying answer. Which often means via the OED. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 18 at 16:15
  • Thanks, I was looking for some explanation of its derivation/etymology. – liyuan Jul 20 at 7:21
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Though 'pithy' and 'terse' may arguably be considered synonyms, 'terse' means to use few words, while 'pithy' means to use few words expressively.

  • @Jim Another way of looking at it is that he’s shown that they are indeed synonyms, but far from identical. – Lawrence Jul 18 at 16:14
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    With @EdwinAshworth’s edits, I’ll retract my DV and delete my comment. – Jim Jul 18 at 16:30
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They may be synonymous in that they both describe speech that is brief and to the point, but one tends to have a positive connotation while the other is usually negative.

"Pithy" usually describes speech which gets to the point, and is usually used in a positive, complimentary way. It is synonymous with succinct, concise, significant, meaningful, and carefully honed.

"Terse" usually describes speech which is abrupt in a rude way. It is usually used disparagingly and is not complimentary. It is synoymous with curt, brusque, abrupt and blunt.

To answer your question then, they do not mean exactly the same thing and to describe someone or their speech as "pithy" does not necessarily mean they are rude or terse.

I don't claim to know the origins of the word "pithy" and how it relates to its fruity homonym, but as the pith of fruit tends to be sharp-tasting I would suggest that it is this quality of sharpness which underpins both.

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