Friday, September 08, 2017


 Corky from Atlanta, Michigan, asked about the word nitwit. It’s a great little insult –dismissive, but stopping short of outright contempt.

It means a stupid, silly, or intellectually deficient person. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a 1914 citation from the Los Angeles Times (06/05/1914) as its first written instance: “After her trip to Virginia, Miss Helen Morton was quoted as saying that Chicago men were ‘nit wits’.” The quotation marks around nit wits indicates that the word was still relatively new in 1914. In time, when a term is used often enough and long enough, the quotation marks disappear.

The OED points to nit, meaning the egg of a louse or other parasitic insect, as the source. Shakespeare later used the word nit to designate an insignificant, inconsequential, or contemptible person. So, an evolution from insect to bug brain.

But there is an alternate explanation. Merriam-Webster, along with several other dictionaries, thinks that the nit portion probably came from the German dialectical nit, meaning not. So, not having an ounce of intelligence.

An allied word takes us back to lice again. Nitpicking – petty criticism or fault-finding on a trivial level – summons up images of someone removing tiny lice eggs from a scalp.

Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:10 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to wtcmradio.comand clicking on Listen Now. You’ll also find about two year’s worth of podcasts there under The Ron Jolly Show.


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