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Words: Pill, v.

THERE IS a nasty moment in Lorrie Moore's excellent new collection of stories, Birds of America, when somebody finds a dead man in a "black knit mask. It was pilled with grey."

Setting aside such slang meanings as fail, blackball and to give pills, it is a fascinating verb (not to mention noun), which, in this case, goes back to Old English and Latin. It means to make bald or to peel (while a lost usage - familiar to Chaucer and Shakespeare - is to pillage). In need of a synonym one might say, "don't decorticate that scab!"

Strictly speaking, then, this mask is rather the worse for wear, with some other substance visible below the knitting; which sounds unlikely, and clammy for the wearer, and one infers that in fact the wool was flecked with grey.