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Etymological Pettifoggery

By Anatoly Liberman


How did pettifoggers get their name?  Again and again we try to discover the origin of old slang, this time going back to the 16th century.  Considering how impenetrable modern slang is, we should always be ready to stay with extremely modest conclusions in dealing with the popular speech of past epochs.  In this blog, the essays on chestnut, tip, humbug, scoundrel, kybosh, and the much later copasetic and hubba-hubba, among others, have revealed some of the difficulties an etymologist encounters in dealing with such vocabulary.

In regards to the sphere of application, pettifogger belongs with huckster, hawker, and their synonym badger.  All of them are obscure, badger being the hardest.  Pettifoggers, shysters, and all kinds of hagglers have humble antecedents and usually live up to their names, which tend to be coined by their bearers.  At one time it was customary to say that words like hullabaloo are as undignified as the things they designate.  Today we call a marked correspondence between words’ meaning and their form iconicity, admire their raciness, and organize international conferences to celebrate their existence.  Pettifogger is unlike hullabaloo (to which, incidentally, another post was once devoted), but there is something mildly “iconic” in it: petty refers to smallness, while fogger resembles f—er and thus commands minimal respect.  As we will see, the resemblance is not fortuitous.

The Low (= Northern) German or Dutch origin of fogger is certain.   The early Modern Dutch form focker was Latinized as foggerus, with -gg- in the middle.  German has Focker, Fogger, and Fucker, none having any currency outside dialects.  The OED cites them from the Grimms’ multivolume dictionary.  (As is known, the OED had to bow to the morals of its time and excluded “unprintable” words, but in the entries where no one would look for them, offensive forms appeared: such is a mention of German fucker, with lower-case f, under fogger, and of windfucker “kestrel.”)  Although today Dutch fokken means “to breed cattle,” its predecessor had a much broader semantic spectrum: “cheat; flee; adapt, adjust; beseem; push; collect things secretly”—an odd array of seemingly incompatible senses.  Most likely, “push” was the starting point; hence “adjust,” then “adjust properly” (“beseem”). But despite doing things as it beseems or behooves, pushing suggested underhand dealings (“collect things secretly; cheat,” and even “flee,” evidently from acting in a hurry and clandestinely).

There can be little doubt that the English F-word is also a borrowing of a Low German verb whose basic meaning was, however, “move back and forth” rather than “push.”  “Deceive” and “copulate” often appear as senses of one and the same verb.  Fokken is a member of a large family.  All over the Germanic speaking world we find ficken, ficka, fikla (compare Engl. fickle), fackeln, fickfacken, fucken, fuckeln, and so forth, meaning approximately the same: “make quick, short movements; hurry up; run aimlessly back and forth; shilly-shally; cheat (especially in games).”  Unlike German, Dutch, and Scandinavian, English had almost no words with the fi(c)k ~ fa(c)k ~ fu(c)k root, so that fogger is rather obviously not native.  The same, I believe, is true of several Romance words like Italian ficcare “copulate,” though in the latest dictionaries it is said to be unrelated to its Germanic counterpart.  A few Germanic words of this structure and meaning made their way even into Slavic.

It is sometimes hard to explain why certain words are borrowed.  Every sizable community has enough swindlers (and names for them), and every human group has a verb of copulation.  Yet fogger has come from either German or Dutch, and the F-word ousted several well-established native synonyms.  Apparently, pettifogger means “small pusher” or “swindler on a small scale,” or “small (shady) dealer.”  The problem would have been solved once and for all but for the suggestion in the first edition of the OED that fogger is “probably derived from Fogger, the surname of a renowned family of merchants and financiers of Augsburg in the 15th and 16th centuries.”  Additionally, the OED referred to fooker, for which a single 1607 citation was found and which the dictionary traced tentatively to German fucker (sic).  The meaning of fooker might be “capitalist.”

The later adaptations and digests of the OED do not present a united front. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology makes no mention of the German merchants and bankers and says that fogger is a word of unknown origin, perhaps a back formation from pettifogger, but the latest Shorter Oxford returns to Augsburg.  Absolute proof cannot reward a search like this, but a few suggestions do not sound too risky.  Judging by the facts at our disposal, fogger, far from being a word of unknown origin, is a continuation of German/Middle Dutch focker ~ foggerPettifogger is a petty fogger (“small dealer in suspicious transactions”), the more so as the English compound has been recorded in the form of two separate words.  Connection with the Foggers is unlikely.  I believe that the origin of the family name Fogger presents few difficulties: it is fogger spelled with capital f.  In Germany, surnames became common relatively late, and the Foggers, like any other prosperous family whose wealth was not inherited but amassed, must have taken years before they reached the position in which we find them.  At first they were just “foggers.” Later the nickname turned into their surname.  Lists of people’s names matching their profession circulate widely, and everybody must have met Mr. Byrd, an ornithologist, and a college dean called Dean.  But Fogger is a different case: here we have a professional name reminiscent of Smith, Goldsmith, Cooper, and dozens of others.  Petty men, petty problems…

I often hear the question about the reliability of our etymological dictionaries and about which of them is the best.  Those who are not involved in historical linguistics seldom know how uncertain the origin of most words is.  We go to a doctor to get the diagnosis, and if the symptoms are unclear, we expect more tests.  In the eyes of the public, etymologists are like doctors and should be able to give definitive answers to their queries.  To satisfy this unrealistic demand, dictionaries try to sound more informative than they can be from the nature of the case.  Confronted with several plausible solutions, they choose the one they find relatively persuasive, without referring to the others, and present it as final.  Or the editor will copy the etymology from the most authoritative source (for example, the OED), because following such a model guarantees success even when the explanation is wrong (few dictionary users realize that even the great and incomparable OED is the work of humans and may err), or the editor may not know the best solution.  In many cases none of the proposals inspires confidence, so that the editor will say, however reluctantly: “Origin unknown” (that is, no diagnosis, and it is better to be safe than sorry).  Pettifogger attracted little attention, but one can still study an etymologist’s options on the material given above.  As far as I can judge, the best etymological dictionary is such as presents all the reasonable points of view, sifts them, and presents a full picture of the state of the art.  We do not yet have such a dictionary for English.


Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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3 Responses to “Etymological Pettifoggery”
  1. [...] August 2010 by History at Cumberland University Oxford University Press Blog has an interesting post on the etymological origins of the F-word. It offers interesting insight into the development of [...]

  2. As discussed elsewhere [old] chestnut likely came from the often-performed play “The Broken Sword.” Copasetic was likely coined by Irving Batcheller for his popular 1919 book on Lincoln, Man for the Ages. Additional evidence that kibosh originally meant a lash, whip from a 19th century song:
    “Oh dear! I can’t help a-thinking
    they’d knock our profession all to smash
    If they’d bring in the kybosh like winking–
    That is, they’d introduce the lash.”
    [kybosh=lash]
    A 20th-century glossary gives “kibosh…lash or whip.”

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