• pettifogger •
Pronunciation: pe-ti-fah-gêr • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. An unscrupulous lawyer. 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 pettifoggery, which is generated when a pettifogger is pettifogging. If the 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, using the British spelling, claimed that de Quincy was himself "the prince of Pettifogulisers".
In Play: Television has raised pettifoggery to a high art, giving deft pettifoggers a bully pulpit: "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 mistiness of its location.
Word History: Pettifogger may seem to belong to the family of fanciful coinages from the US frontier, in company with hornswoggle, gobbledygook, and snollygoster. Today's word is of much older vintage. It comes from the German surname, Fugger, the family of wealthy but widely disliked financiers in 15th-16th century Augsburg. A petty Fugger originally was a petty but deceptive businessman. When the phrase became a word, English folk etymology shifted the fug- to fog, thereby influencing the sense of the word. This new sense of someone who fogs up the discussion easily migrated to lawyers.