2B or not 2B

by Chris Hancock

The purpose of this site is primarily the glorification of words.  But for the words to exist, somebody has to write them.  In this technological age, everything is typed on a multitude of electronic devices – when was the last time you wrote anything longer than a signature by hand?  In that context, some of the writing implements we formerly used are taking on a mythical, faintly ridiculous quality.

As an analogy, older readers may recall a popular record made by American comedian Bob Hewhart, about the introduction of tobacco to the civilised world by Sir Walter Raleigh. In it, Newhart (as Raleigh) explained the bizarre usage: “you take some of the leaves, roll them up into a paper tube, put the tube in your mouth… and set fire to it”.

If the use and abuse of tobacco seems bizarre at face value, the way we used writing implements isn’t that far behind. Let’s take a look at one of the foot-soldiers among this army of implements – the humble pencil.

A pencil is (was?) a thin tube of graphite and clay (commonly referred to as the “lead”) fused inside a cylinder of wood, with the end of the lead exposed (the “point”). As you write, a small amount of the lead is transferred to the paper by abrasion.

Theoretically, this abrasion would cause the point to wear down and part of the wooden casing would have to be pared down to expose more of the lead (and –also in theory only – the average pencil can write for two miles). In practice, more often than not the point breaks off long before that degree of wearing away can be achieved.  In either case, the pencil then needs to be “sharpened”.

I’m not so old as to pre-date the pencil sharpener, but I do remember the extra thrill associated with sharpening a pencil using a pen knife. This gave you the ersatz thrill of being an American frontier trapper, whittling a stick into a makeshift fish spear, or an Arctic whaler captain whiling away the long hours over scrimshaw. The appeal of this “sharpening” was such that it would continue long after an acceptable point had been achieved.  Knife-sharpened pencils are almost always half the length of others due to this phenomenon… and the fact that it was damned difficult to get right (see also “sawing a bit off a table leg to stop the table wobbling”).

Eventually the pencil sharpener became ubiquitous. The most highly-prized hand-held sharpeners at school were the ones with two holes; a small one for sharpening pencils and a large one for sticking someone else’s little finger in and twisting (kids can be very cruel).

Still in the schoolroom, the next level to this was an industrial-strength sharpener, usually clamped to the teacher’s desk. The pencil was fed in one side and operated by turning a handle on the other side. The mechanism automatically drew the pencil into the sharpener as it was sharpened. In this way, the pencil could be at first sharpened, then over-sharpened, then made to disappear altogether. Indeed, suspicions persisted that the cost of these sharpeners were subsidised by the pencil manufacturers themselves.

A major benefit of using a pencil was that – when mistakes occurred – it was possible to erase them. In the early days, this was done with a small piece of bread (not the crust). Eventually bread was replaced – presumably at the behest of hungry writers – by a block of a rubber compound. This was known as an eraser or – for obvious reasons – a rubber.

For people who became tired of putting down their pencil in order to pick up their eraser and vice-versa, a hero was about to emerge.  Enter the splendidly-named Hymen Lipman. He – a resident of Philadelphia (in the US state of Pencil-vania ho! ho!) – had the idea to put an eraser on the end of a pencil.  Innumerable man-hours were saved, and this innovation also coincided with a reduction in ear-drum puncture injuries.

As this article is for That Word Site, it would be remiss of me not to mention at this point that most splendid of words – a word so ugly it’s beautiful: palimpsest. A palimpsest can be defined as “a parchment or the like from which writing has been partially or completely erased to make room for another text”. So if you’ve ever stopped writing in pencil to use an eraser on what you’ve written, you’ve not made an error – you’ve created a palimpsest!

One key benefit of the wooden pencil – often overlooked by historians charting its rise to prominence – is its ability to be snapped in half. The snapping-pencil-in-frustration scene was once a staple of TV sit-coms. And I haven’t checked, but I’d be surprised if Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) didn’t snap at least one pencil as Inspector Clouseau’s long-suffering superior in the Pink Panther films.  Stress balls have their place, but nothing can match the feel and sound of splintering pencil.

And, having made the case for pencils, I put my pencil back in its case.

Chris Hancock

About Chris Hancock

Chris Hancock (@cjhancock) is an IT consultant and dictionary enthusiast in the UK. He’s worked in Engineering and Computing since leaving University, all the time hoping that the post of Crossword Editor for “The Guardian” will come up. It hasn’t. Yet.


105 Responses to “2B or not 2B”

  1. What a wonderful post. I’m obsessed with pencils – I always have at least three sharpened and at the ready, even in this age of backspace and delete keys.

  2. What a delightful read, thanks! I’m going to go sharpen mine now

  3. I have a pencil bag full, for sketching, and lending to kids who’ve lost theirs. Love pencils :-)

  4. Love me a good pencil. Especially a dark one, 6B or, at a push, 4B. Not 2B.

  5. LOVE your writing Chris Hancock! Is there anything sadder than a pencil with a nib fallen off?

  6. I had one of those awful clicky pencils, which shot little bits of lead forward each time you clicked, and were completely useless. I have pencil envy.

  7. I don’t want to swamp the comments section by replying individually. Just take is as read that I’m grateful for all your kind comments :-)

  8. Now I have gravatar envy too, how come mine is PINK?

  9. Chris, what a way with words you have! I am going to go and browse my stationery catalogues.

  10. Great writing, who’d have thought pencils could be so fascinating – and I went back and read everything else too! More please! Makes such a great change from all the celeb gossip and election hooha.

  11. I’ll admit at first I thought PENCILS?! but then I read and I thought aw, pencils, lovely things. Perfect for breaking over small brother’s heads. I never fancied the ones with erasers on the end, prefer me a purebred.

  12. But what about a good old fountain pen – I’m revealing my age here of course – what about an ode to that? Sterling work, and a new favourite site to bookmark.

  13. WAIT! Pencils don’t have lead?! Everything I ever believed in is a lie…

  14. I was working until about an hour before my wedding on a big commission, first building I’d designed myself. In all the wedding photos you can see the pencil still tucked behind my ear!

  15. Always keep a pencil handy, my husband teases me about it so I will direct him to this column! Thanks Chris, and I loved your Seven Stages of Comprehension too – what a mind you have! :-)

  16. I work in a stationery store, and the 2B isn’t very popular – in fact the 4B outsells all the other pencils, even the good old fashioned HB. I suppose I really should know what the origin of the coding is, but I never thought about it before – anyone?

  17. I favor an HB. Great read, thank you Mr Hancock.

  18. Another lovely piece by a good writer – been a fan since your Dictionary piece. Love pencils, and dictionaries, and look forward to seeing what you remind me of my love for next!

  19. When we were at school we learned to write in pencil and could only “graduate” to pen when we were good enough. I was the last in my class by more than a year to “graduate”, and I always kinda missed the pencils. I had different color grips for them too, they made me very happy. Thanks for rekindling those memories!

  20. I wonder if many of us could write a few pages in pencil now lol!

  21. I find things I write with a pencil seem more real than those I type. When I type I might delete and rewrite a sentence – such as this one – four or five times, mulling over the potential construction and how variations might be construed. When I write in pencil, I go with my gut. Judging by the effectiveness of your words here, I’d guess you wrote in pencil: but maybe you’re just a far more skilled writer than I!

    • I made a few notes in pencil, but I have to confess the article was largely written on a keyboard. And yes – there was a lot of drafting and redrafting. That said, I do like writing with a pencil when it’s appropriate.

  22. Glad to see folks commenting, I’ve been quiet here for so long ‘cos it didn’t seem the done thing but you are a great writer, and you lighten my day every time I see a post from you! Please write the pen and typewriter pieces, and a whole lot more!

    • Hi, Delilah. The feedback is great – especially as it’s positive! Thanks for your kind comments. I wish I could write these pieces “just like that”. I’ll do my best…

  23. I broke my last pencil this morning. Totally by accident. Over my husband’s head.

  24. My girlfriend just read this and said “you’re not funny enough. The pencil guy is funny.” – *sigh*

  25. Fabulous Post, More Like This Please.

  26. I collect pencils! I have footlong ones, and tiny ones, and ones from all over the place. But I never write with them LOL! Thanks for the great post, Chris, looking forward to more.

  27. What a joy to find this in the midst of election madness! Please write more, Chris Hancock and the other wordnerds, to save us from the crazy world outside.

  28. Pencils are a sketcher’s bset friend. Cheers Mr Hancock for another grand post, I too like that the commentors found their nerve this time.

  29. I wonder if you might have any insights or indeed preferences regarding the aesthetics of a pencil? The ubiquitous red and black stripe seems to be de rigeur, but what of the blue with black end, or indeed the yellow which I seem to recall there being more of in my far too distant youth? Thank you for your eloquent insights, and I look forward to the next installment – and your library day memories, which I believe we shall be treated too soon.

    • I prefer the hexagonal section, striped variety for everyday writing (though I am not immune to new technology and have been seduced by the convenience of a 0.7mm Automatic pencil). Interestingly, though people fretted about lead poisoning from pencils, lead in the *paint* on the pencil persisted long after lead was present in the… erm… lead. Pencils with coloured leads should be circular in section and be painted in the colour of the lead. These should be kept in a shallow wide tin, in either a pleasing rainbow-esque order or – get this – in alphabetical order of the name of the colour (e.g. Black, Blue, Green, Grey, Orange, Pink, Purple, Red, White).

      • Oho, a library of pencils! I keep mine from light to dark, so that I can always grab the nearest. They are currently a grey collection I got in Italy, and I try to sharpen them all evenly.

      • You have an AUTOMATIC PENCIL? Ok, guy, it’s fine, you can take my girlfriend! Be good to her, is all I ask.

  30. A general comment on the site, and the writing of the supremely eloquent Chris Hancock and Karen Jeynes in particular: JOLLY GOOD!

  31. I don’t feel dressed without a pencil.

  32. Fantastic piece, pencils should always be a part of our lives!

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