• pettifogger •
Pronunciation: pe-ti-fah-gêr • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. Originally this word referred to an unscrupulous lawyer but later its meaning migrated to 2. anyone who quibbles over trivial details in order to obscure the meaning of what is being said or written.
Notes: The fault of the pettifogger is called pettifoggery which is generated when a pettifogger is pettifogging (from the verb to pettifog). If this verb is too short for you, a figure no less prominent than Thomas de Quincy has used pettifogulize to refer to the same activity. As late as 1932 Virginia Woolf (The Common Reader, 2nd Series) claimed that de Quincy himself is "indeed...the prince of Pettifogulisers" (British spelling).
In Play: Television has raised pettifoggery to a high art, giving deft pettifoggers the greatest 'bully pulpit' they have ever had: "The unfortunately televised debate on environmental issues was reduced to quibbling between two pettifoggers over timber rights." The US Department of State has earned itself the nickname "Foggy Bottom", probably more as a result of the amount of pettifoggery associated with it than the fog in its location.
Word History: Today's word seems to belong to the family of fanciful coinages from US frontier, such as hornswoggle, gobbledegook, and snollygoster. Pettifogger, however, is a much older word and one with a clearer history. It seems to be a variation of the German name, Fugger, the surname of a family of wealthy Augsburg merchants and financiers of the 15th and 16th centuries. A petty Fugger would then have been a small, self-important businessman. How the word's sense slipped over to a lawyer remains unclear. The spelling was, no doubt, influenced by fog, which has a related meaning, even though the fog generated by a good pettifogger is far from petty.
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