The origin of the name pixie is uncertain. Some have speculated that it comes from the Swedish dialectal pyske meaning small fairy. Others have disputed this, given there is no plausible case for Nordic dialectal survivals in southwest Britain, claiming instead — in view of the Cornish origin of the piskie — that the term is more probably Celtic in origin, though no clear ancestor of the word is known. The term Pobel Vian (‘Little People’) is often used to refer to them collectively. Very similar analogues exist in closely related Irish , Manx and Breton culture, although their common names are unrelated, even within areas of language survival there is a very high degree of local variation of names. In west Penwith, the area of late survival of the Cornish language , spriggans are distinguished from pixies by their malevolent nature. Closely associated with tin mining in Cornwall are the subterranean ancestral knockers.

Pixie mythology is believed to pre-date Christian presence in Britain. In the Christian era they were sometimes said to be the souls of children who had died un-baptised. These children would change their appearance to pixies once their clothing was placed in clay funeral pots used in their earthly lives as toys. By 1869 some were suggesting that the name pixie was a racial remnant of Pictic tribes who used to paint and tattoo their skin blue, an attribute often given to pixies. Indeed, the Picts gave their name to a type of Irish Pixie called a Pecht. This suggestion is still met in contemporary writing, but there is no proven connection and the etymological connection is doubtful. Some 19th-century researchers made more general claims about pixie origins, or have connected them with the Puck, a mythological creature sometimes described as a fairy; the name Puck is also of uncertain origin, Irish Puca, Welsh Pwca.

The earliest published version of The Three Little Pigs story is from Dartmoor in 1853 and has three little pixies in place of the pigs. In older Westcountry dialect modern Received Pronunciation letter pairs are sometimes transposed from the older Saxon  spelling (waps for wasp, aks for ask and so on) resulting in piskies in place of modern piksies (pixies) as still commonly found in Devon and Cornwall to modern times.

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