Monday, October 22, 2012

Of lice and men

Life again impinges on the blog. Since my daughter managed to get a few lice. It got me to thinking. Obviously delousing has given some interesting lexical items to English.

  • Lousy – denoting poor quality, initially implied lice-infested; it also shows the same voicing between vowels as knives and wolves
  • Nitty-gritty – the core of an idea; but the etymology is disputed and is early 20th century African-American, but may reduplicate gritty as easily as nitty
  • Nit-picky – overly pedantic, the way you'd want someone who is picking nits to be
  • Go over it with a fine-toothed comb – to really check the details, because this is how you catch lice and nits
  • Nitwit – a fool, though whether it means someone who has the wit of a nit, or is a nit (under another definition of a useless person) is disputed
  • Louse up – to screw something up, as in you've added lice to it

No less than Jonathan Swift give us this gem.

  • Three skips of a louse – something worthless

But this isn't all that interesting. It's fun coincidences of culture on the lexicon. So where did louse and nit come from that they've infested the language? Mind you, lice are a common phenomenon across mammals and birds, so people have managed to turn up not one, but three species of lice specific to us.

Looking at the OED, we get this as the progression of the word louse over time:
lús OE > lous ME > louse ModE
Looking at the other Germanic languages we see this at Wiktionary—and it's no real surprise.
Dutch, luis; German, Laus; Swedish, lus
Common roots for a common problem. Seems all the Germans had lice. Latin on the other hand gives us pediculus. What's this? A diminuitive of pes? And lice do have nasty feet, but no common root. Hmm. Or as its synonym, it could be serpens—but really that's any animal that creeps. Greek doesn't supply any likely candidates either: φθείρ. Oh well.

And nit at the OED shows this history in English.
hnitu OE >  nites ME > nit ModE
The other Germanic languages are likewise fellow travelers.
Dutch, neet; German, Nisse; Swedish, gnet
All of the Germanic languages seemed to have noticed lice eggs too—or rather our linguistic ancestors did and thus gave us the word. (And catch the English/German doublets: nit/Nisse, shit/Scheisse.) What about Latin? Lens. No dice. Grek is another story. The modern Greek for nit is (apparently) κονίδα. I see an /nit/ or more accurately /nið/. In any case, this could potentially be a really old word. Let's take a peek at some other Indo-European languages (and I kind of wish there were a better tool than Wiktionary for this, but there you have it).
Polish, gnida; Armenian, aniç (as Romanized); Latvian, gnīda
Here's the pattern I see (and I'm not going to get into Persian or Hindi as they screw up my point):
/_nid_/ or /_nit_/ – and /t/ and /d/ are the same except for voice
So this one looks to be a common Indo-European affliction. But enough nit picking, no?