Monday, March 14, 2011

The Lisa Simpsons and Martin Princes of the World

You know this person. You went to school with this person. You may well have been this person at times, but that didn’t stop you from occasionally wishing for an act of God to quietly take out this person before he or she could raise their hand again.
pettifogger (PEH-tee-fah-gər) — noun: 1. one who quibbles over trivia and raises petty, annoying objections. 2. an unscrupulous or unethical lawyer, especially one of lesser skill.
For this post, I’m more concerned with the first definition than the second, though you could see the connection between a student whose pointless questions ruin a lecture and an attorney whose ignorance of courtroom procedure derails a trial. As someone who writes for a living — and often in the presence of other writers — I’ve learned to identify and avoid the workplace pettifoggers, whose niggling gums up the creative process. For them, being technically correct comes as the expense of others finishing their work.

Etymonline offers two possible origins for pettifogger. One — pettifactor, dating back to the 1580s and meaning “a legal agent who undertakes small cases” — is straightforward and fairly uninteresting. The other, which I enjoy a lot more, posits that pettifogger could come from petty, which comes from the French petit and has meant “of small importance” since the 1520s, and the obsolete Dutch word focker. But that focker doesn’t mean quite what you may expect, as it either comes from the Flemish focken, “to cheat,” or the Middle English Fugger, a wealthy family of fifteenth-century merchants whose surname came to mean “monopolist, rich man or usurer” in German, Flemish and Dutch. Etymonline notes that the Oxford English Dictionary suggesting this second etymology marks a “rare burst of pure speculation,” but there it is nonetheless:
A ‘petty Fugger’ would mean one who on a small scale practices the dishonourable devices for gain popularly attributed to great financiers; it seems possible that the phrase ‘petty fogger of the law,’ applied in this sense to some notorious person, may have caught the popular fancy.
Now, the next time someone calls you out on a point that is technically wrong (but practically okay), you’ll have a word to describe their petty fuckery.

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