Meaning of Pitch Black: Why do we say something is Pitch Black?

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An inky night, a deep echo-y cave, or a look at the final frontier that is space, could all be described as “pitch black”. The phrase “pitch black” may date back to Homer’s Iliad around 850 BC, if not earlier, but what is this “pitch” of which we speak?

What is Pitch?

Pitch is a black, viscous and slightly elastic material that is really similar to tar. In fact pitch and tar are words that are often used interchangeably, although pitch is more viscous and solid that tar.

Pitch can be made by one of two ways:

1.)    Pitch made from distilling crude oil and petroleum:

This type of pitch is also called bitumen, so next time you want to be fancy, and you walk into a dark place with someone, you can tell them it’s absolutely bitumen black!

2.)    Pitch made from plant resin, mostly from conifers and pines:

This pitch is also sometimes called Greek pitch, rosin or colophony.

Uses of Pitch

  • To waterproof things: Traditionally, pitch was used to help waterproof wooden ships, buckets, roofs and barrels.
  • To make black ink: Rosin is used in printing inks.
  • To increase friction to improve grip: e.g. to help bows grip onto the violin strings, to reduce slipperiness of dancers’ shoes, or to improve the grip of gymnasts and even bull riders at rodeos.
  • Medicinal uses: Traditional remedies by Native Americans and other traditions often utilised plant-derived pitch.
  • Other uses: Gap-filler in building work, Caulking, Paving, to make torches, to make solder, used to make “mystic smoke”.

Related Articles
See other articles in the Etymology category including:
- Jet Black: Why do we say something is “jet black”?
- Limelight: Why do we say someone is “in the limelight”?
- Sleep Tight: Why do I say Sleep Tight?
- Love (tennis): Why do I say “love” instead of “zero” in tennis?
- OK: Why do I say “OK”? What does OK stand for?

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7 Responses to Meaning of Pitch Black: Why do we say something is Pitch Black?

  1. Ana Canovas says:

    Wow!!! I love this site. No need to research anymore as you do it for me. Fantastic. I learn something new all the time. :)

  2. Lior says:

    hehe Thanks Ana :D Let me know if you have any questions you’re curious about and I’ll add it to my “to do list”.

  3. Flok says:

    You made some decent post there! I did a search on the issue and found I agree with your points!

  4. Klos says:

    Good article and straight to the point.

  5. The Doctor says:

    The question ‘Why do we say something is Pitch Black?’ you say what pitch is but not why something completley dark is pitch black.

    • Lior says:

      Hi Doctor,

      Something completely dark is called “pitch black” because the natural color of pitch is black. It is like saying something is “sky blue” or “grass green”.

      Hope that clears it up! :)


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