Safire ‘On Language’ — Fun with insults!
today at 10:00 am
In William Safire’s wonderful 1980 book “On Language,” part of his attitude in the whole book shows at the start of the entry for the word pettifogging: “What’s in an insult? Fun, if it uses an offbeat word.”
He goes on to describe a speech at the UN General Assembly by a Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic delegate. He denounced the “‘campaign of slander and lying’ by the United States following the liberation of Afghanistan. After a few paragraphs of boilerplate condemnation, he zapped the ‘American-Chinese pettifogging complaint.’
“Pettifogging?” Safire asks.
It turns out that the word in the original Russian “is transliterated as klauza, pronounced ‘klow-oo-zah,'” and is not a frequently used word even in Russian. The interpreter who picked “pettifogging” to translate it, and who spoke with Safire, said he had run into the word fewer than ten times in 17 years at the U.N.
But what is it in English? Safire says that “‘pettifogging’ is defined by most dictionaries as ‘malicious, underhanded,’ with a second meaning of ‘quibbling over insignificant details.’ The word is used to insult lawyers who use the letter of the law to subvert what the insulter considers to be the spirit of the law.” Safire adds that (as of 1980, remember) “‘Pettifogging’ is now as closely wedded to ‘delay’ as ‘unmitigated’ is to ‘gall.'”
Where is pettifogging from? Safire notes that “The word sounds as if it came from a combination of ‘to befog the issue’ with ‘petty details.’ Not so. Most dictionaries hold that the origin of ‘fogger’ is obscure, but the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the term probably comes from a family of German merchants renowned for their methods of cheating in the 15th and 16th centuries.”
So if you find a nattering nabob to insult, calling that person a pettifogger would be likely to confuse as well as insult. We need a bit of civility in our lives, so why not “use your words,” as mothers tend to advise, and grow your vocabulary at the same time?
Margaret Serious has a page on Facebook.
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