Sally M (sallymn) wrote in 1word1day,
Sally M

Sunday Word: Pettifogging

pettifogging [pet-ee-fog-ing, -faw-ging]

1 placing undue emphasis on petty details; petty or trivial
2 dishonest or unethical in insignificant matters; meanly petty.


Has this forced him to recalibrate his pettifogging fussiness? Far from it — he now has more to get gloriously grumpy about in his latest show, entitled Old Man. (Bruce Dessau, Jon Richardson, review: Pedant’s well worth the fuss, Evening Standard, November 2017)

Oh, how I long for the days of political debate when pettifogging blatherskites held no truck with mollycoddling. (David Kittredge, Renaissance Redneck: A blatherskite’s delight, Eagle Times, August 2020)

A pair of pettifogging lawyers had been kicking up a legal dust, and one of them, Bordens lawyer, was still at it. (John H Whitson, Justin Wingate, Ranchman)

However, I was obliged to begin a prosecution in form, and accordingly my governess found me out a very creditable sort of a man to manage it, being an attorney of very good business, and of a good reputation, and she was certainly in the right of this; for had she employed a pettifogging hedge solicitor, or a man not known, and not in good reputation, I should have brought it to but little. (Daniel Defoe, The Fortunes & Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders)


In the later middle ages, there was a class of lawyers who earned their livings making a great deal of fuss over minor legal cases. About 1560 they came to be called pettifoggers. They often had limited concern for scruples or conscience and the term was deeply contemptuous.

Petty, then as now, meant something minor or trivial (from the French petit, small), so that part is obvious enough, but where does fogger come from?

Theories abound. One of the better known, and quoted as fact in a few dictionaries, is that it originated in a German family named Fugger, who were successful merchants and financiers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, based in Augsburg. German, together with Dutch and other Germanic languages, also had variations on fugger as a word for people who were wealthy or grasping about money, or whose business methods were disreputable. Hence in English fogger, dating from the later sixteenth century but long obsolete, was a word for an underhand dealer. The German word might be the source.

The lawyers called pettifoggers spent their time arguing about matters of small importance. The term became popular, and spawned derivatives like pettifogging. These survived the original term, which is now considered archaic, but we retain in the latter word the idea of somebody who places too much emphasis on trifles or who quibbles about minor matters. (World Wide Words)

Tags: adjective, english: elizabethan, middle english, middle german, p, wordsmith: sallymn

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