The word "pixel" was first published in 1965 by Frederic C. Billingsley of JPL, to describe the picture elements of
video images from space probes to the Moon and Mars. Billingsley had learned the word from Keith E. McFarland, at the Link Division of General Precision in Palo Alto, who in turn said he did not know where it originated. McFarland said simply it was "in use at the time" (circa 1963).
The word is a combination of pix, for picture, and element. The word pix appeared in Variety magazine headlines in 1932, as an abbreviation for the word pictures, in reference to movies. By 1938, "pix" was being used in reference to still pictures by photojournalists.
The concept of a "picture element" dates to the earliest days of television, for example as "Bildpunkt" (the German word for pixel, literally 'picture point') in the 1888 German patent of Paul Nipkow. According to various etymologies, the earliest publication of the term picture element itself was in Wireless World magazine in 1927, though it had been used earlier in various U.S. patents filed as early as 1911.
Some authors explain pixel as picture cell, as early as 1972. In graphics and in image and video processing, pel is often used instead of pixel. For example, IBM used it in their Technical Reference for the original PC.
Pixels, abbreviated as "px", are also a unit of measurement commonly used in graphic and web design, equivalent to roughly 1⁄96 inch (0.26 mm). This measurement is used to make sure a given element will display as the same size no matter what screen resolution views it.
Pixilation, spelled with a second i, is an unrelated filmmaking technique that dates to the beginnings of cinema, in which live actors are posed frame by frame and photographed to create stop-motion animation. An archaic British word meaning "possession by spirits (pixies)", the term has been used to describe the animation process since the early 1950s; various animators, including Norman McLaren and Grant Munro, are credited with popularizing it.