Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Bicker & Dicker

Elizabeth from Suttons Bay asked this question: “The Wall Street Journal had this as a headline—‘Dickering on Budget Goes Down To the Wire.’ Shouldn’t that be bickering?”

Depending on the author’s intended nuance, either one would fit. To bicker is defined as “to skirmish, exchange blows; to fight.” Used figuratively, it means “to dispute, quarrel, or wrangle.” Both political parties certainly did fight to the last hour.

To dicker is defined by the OED as, “to trade by barter or exchange; to bargain in a petty way, to haggle.” The first example of dickering cited is from 1802: Port Folio (Philadelphia) ii. 268: “Dickering signifies all that honest conversation, preliminary to the sale of a horse, where the parties very laudably strive in a sort of gladiatorial combat of lying, cheating, and overreaching.”

So, if the writer simply meant a fight, bickering would be the word of choice. If the art of the deal was being emphasized, dickering would fit. Dickering has undertones of pettiness and chicanery, and it’s quite possible that the headline writer was showing some barely-concealed contempt.

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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