Search Results for: pettifogger


Another fun etymology (via pettifogger (“a lawyer who engages in petty quibbling and cavilling, or who employs dubious or underhanded legal practices”) is explained by the OED as simply petty plus the earlier fogger, and the OED says of the latter:

[Of somewhat obscure history; but prob. derived from Fugger, the surname of a renowned family of merchants and financiers of Augsburg in the 15th and 16th c.
The name passed as an appellative into several European langs. In German fugger, fucker, focker (see Grimm) has had the senses ‘monopolist, engrosser’, ‘usurer’, ‘man of great wealth’, ‘great merchant’, and, in certain dialects (doubtless originally through ironical use), ‘huckster, pedlar.’ Kilian 1598 has Flem. focker ‘monopolist, universal dealer’ (monopola, pantopola), giving fuggerus and fuccardus as popular mod.L. equivalents; and in mod.Du. rijke fokker is an avaricious rich man. Walloon foukeur and Sp. fúcar are contemptuous designations for a man of great wealth. A ‘petty Fugger’ would mean one who on a small scale practises the dishonourable devices for gain poularly 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, and so have given rise to the specialized use in sense 1. …]
1. A person given to underhand practices for the sake of gain; chiefly, a contemptuous designation for a lawyer of a low class. Usually preceded by petty (see PETTIFOGGER). Obs.
1576 FLEMING Panopl. Epist. 320 As for this pettie fogger, this false fellowe that is in no credite or countenance. […]

Yes, the jokes write themselves.

Butkov’s Attics.

Over six years ago I wrote about “an obscure mid-19th-century Russian writer called Yakov Butkov” (Russian Wikipedia), an ambitious, self-educated writer from Saratov who made his way briefly into the Saint Petersburg literary world but died young and poor; ever since then I’ve been wanting to read his best-known work, Петербургския вершины [Petersburg attics], and having found it on Google Books (and downloaded it as a pdf for my Kindle — what a great world!), I’m making it my final read before plunging into Dostoevsky. It’s by no means great literature, but it’s enjoyable reading and is clearly the product of the resentful, somewhat paranoid, hanging-on-by-his-fingernails scrivener described in the Milyukov piece. Thumbnail sketches of the stories I’ve read so far will give you an idea: in “Poryadochny chelovek” [A respectable man], poor Chubukevich wins a fortune at cards and becomes “respectable,” happily cheating others; in “Lentochka” [The ribbon], Ivan Anisimovich gets a promotion and a ribbon (because he can copy documents in a fair hand without understanding a word) and hopes this will help him win the hand of the fair Wilhelmina (“Minchen! Minochka!”), but when he shows it off to her she barely notices it and tells him happily she’s engaged to another man; in “Pochtenny chelovek” [The estimable man], the narrator (trying to evade his creditors) runs into his old pal Luka Pachkunov, who tells him how and his wife make money from fake charities; in “Bitka” [Smart guy], Samson Samsonovich, once an up-and-coming “smart guy,” now spends his time cadging drinks in a German-style tavern called Kitai [China].

Since the last-named story starts with a bit of linguistic humor, I’ll quote the opening here:

It’s a shame that from day to day the Russian Language loses the meanings and even the use of many ancient, powerful, accurate words that have been driven out by foreign ones, supposedly because our language is poor and inexpressive! Nowadays, for example, the word genius is very much in fashion. It’s worth inquiring about who gets called a genius, and why. A contributor to a magazine whom the thrifty editor or publisher doesn’t feel the need to pay for his work is called a genius by way of encouragement, when in fact he’s no genius, he’s just an unskilled laborer of the literary world. In an office, a man who has perfectly mastered officialese, who knows how to confuse a matter with clerkly flourishes and can write and copy with equal perfection passes for a genius, when he’s nothing but a pettifogger […]

Furthermore, they call someone a genius who can’t be called a unskilled laborer, or a pettifogger, or a thief, not to any extent, someone who is nothing other than a smart guy.

This story is about a smart guy.

The Russian:

Жаль, что день отъ дня теряютъ свое значеніе въ Русскомъ Языкѣ и вовсе выходятъ изъ употребленія многія древнія, сильныя, мѣткія слова, тѣснимыя иными чужеязычными словами, будто потому, что языкъ нашъ бѣденъ, невыразителенъ! Нынѣ, напримѣръ, въ большомъ ходу слово геній. Стоитъ освѣдомиться, кого и за что величаютъ геніемъ. Журнальный сотрудникъ, которому разсчетливый редакторъ, или издатель журнала, не находитъ нужнымъ платить за трудъ, называется, для поощренія, геніемъ а между тѣмъ онъ не геній, а только литературный чернорабочій. Въ канцеляріи, человѣкъ, совершенно владѣющій казеннымъ слогомъ, умѣющій запутать дѣло подьяческими крючками, съ одинаковымъ совершенствомъ пишущій и переписывающій слыветъ геніемъ, а онъ только строка
. . .
Далѣе, геніемъ называютъ такого человѣка, котораго нельзя назвать ни чернорабочимъ, ни строкою, ни воромъ, въ какомъ бы то ни было размѣрѣ, человѣка, который не что иное какъ битка.

Идетъ рѣчь о биткѣ.

The word битка [bitká] is long obsolete; Dahl defines it as “челов. бойкий, бывалый, опытный, дошлый, смелый.”


Mark Liberman at the Log has a post about an interesting fact I was unaware of: the name of the H0/HO scale of model railway is from “half zero.” Accordingly, the Wikipedia talk page contains a vigorous prescriptivist (“The correct name is ‘H0’ or ‘half zero’; Google only shows that most people do it wrong“) versus descriptivist (“You seem to have forgotten that what was and what is are two separate situations. Your argument is the same as arguing that if a word is a Latin derivative, then it is still a Latin word and should be spelled the same”) debate. I’m sure you can guess which side I come down on.
Totally unrelated, but a comment by Christopher Squire on Pepys’ Diary explains an interesting premodern usage by quoting the OED:

pragmatical, adj. and n.
. . 3.a. Officious, meddlesome, interfering; intrusive. Obs.
. . b. Conceited, self-important, pompous; opinionated; dogmatic, unbending.
1660 H. More Explan. Myst. Godliness iv. xiii. 131 The leguleious Cavils of some Pragmatical Pettifoggers.
1668 J. Glanvill Blow at Mod. Sadducism Pref. sig. A2, With a pert and pragmatical Insolence, they censure all.
1712 J. Addison Spectator No. 481. ¶4 Lacqueys were never so saucy and pragmatical, as they are now-a-days.
1724 Swift Let. to Molesworth 2 Which‥ may perhaps give me the Title of Pragmatical and Overweening.
1779 F. Burney Let. 25 Oct.–3 Nov. in L. E. Troide & S. J. Cooke Early Jrnls. & Lett. Fanny Burney (1994) 407 His extreme pomposity,—the solemn stiffness of his Person‥& the quaint importance of his delivery,—are‥ like some Pragmatical‥ old Coxcomb represented on the stage.’

As Christopher says, “A useful word which has gone out of use for some reason tho’ the type it describes is still with us.”