Pettifoggery, etc

Justice Roberts & PettifoggingI think it is appropriate for me to admonish both the House managers and the President’s counsel in equal terms to remember that they are addressing the world’s greatest deliberative body. One reason it has earned that title is because its members avoid speaking in a manner and using language that is not conducive to civil discourse.
In the 1905 Swayne trial, a senator objected when one of the managers used the word “pettifogging” and the presiding officer said the word ought not to have been used. I don’t think we need to aspire to that high of a standard, but I do think those addressing the Senate should remember where they are.

Chief Justice John Roberts, 22 January 2020

The word “pettifogging” was recently introduced to many people when it was spoken by Chief Justice John Roberts on the first day of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. He was admonishing those speaking at the trial to avoid the use of insulting or inflammatory language—and the news media found themselves obliged to explain what exactly “pettifogging” meant.

The act of pettifogging is pettifoggery, and the word’s little moment of fame reminded me that there seem to be rather a lot of strange and obscure compound nouns ending in -ery that are used in a pejorative manner. And that’s what this post is about.

A pettifogger is a lawyer who uses sharp or dishonest practice in order to win cases. The first element comes from petty, which derives from French petit, “small”; the second element probably derives from the Fuggers, a family of wealthy merchants and bankers based in Augsburg during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Even during their ascendancy, the word fogger, derived from their name, was used to designate a person who was prepared to use underhand methods for financial gain. The verb to pettifog, quoted by Justice Roberts, is a back-formation from the noun.

Skulduggery is underhand dealing, secret machination, or just plain trickery. No-one seems to know the origin of the expression, which started out as sculduddery in the eighteenth century. It has a back-formed verb, to skuldug, which has failed to gain as much popularity as it deserves.

Tomfoolery is foolish behaviour. The word comes from the stock character Tom Fool who appeared in mediaeval plays—the name “Tom” was used to designate the common man, much in the manner of “Joe Public” today. Damfoolery is a more modern equivalent, the behaviour of “damned fools”. It has an associated adjective damfool, which in the nineteenth century was occasionally spelled damphool, for no readily apparent reason.

Crackpottery is the behaviour of a crackpot—the “pot” in this case being a slang term for the skull. Crackpot was once synonymous with the now obsolete crackbrain—a person who’s brain isn’t working properly. In modern times, the pejorative crackpot seems to be reserved to designate cranks and other harmless eccentrics. Crackpottery has an apparently medical synonym, psychoceramics—this is the fictitious field of study of the equally fictitious Professor Josiah Stinkney Carberry. Carberry originated as a hoax in 1929, but has now become a tradition at Brown University, Rhode Island.

Madcappery is a little like crackpottery, except the madcap is maniacal in behaviour. The derivation is obvious, though quite why the headgear is relevant is unknown.

Fruitloopery, a word championed by the magazine New Scientist since 2005, is the ignorant misuse of scientific jargon to add a superficial air of plausibility to one’s speech or writing. It derives from fruit loop, a slang expression for someone who is eccentric or credulous, which has been around since the 1980s. And that, in turn, presumably has something to do with the alarming children’s breakfast cereal Froot Loops, though I’m hard-pressed to think what.

Loonspuddery is a naive willingness to accept or transmit even the most outlandish conspiracy theories or “alternative” viewpoints. Although it has been knocking around for the better part of a decade, the word doesn’t seem to have made it into the dictionaries yet. But if I had to hazard a guess at the etymology, I’d say loon in the sense of “lunatic”, and spud in the Scottish sense of “potato”—which is to say, both mad and not very clever.

Nincompoopery is the state of being, or the actions of, a nincompoop—a word of obscure origin, meaning “idiot”. Samuel Johnson hazarded that it might have something to do with the Latin non compos mentis, “not of sound mind”, but that doesn’t seem to match with the earliest form of the word, nickumpoop. Nitwittery is a synonym, referring to a nitwit—a person who has no more wit than a nit (which is the egg of a headlouse, and therefore not particularly bright). At the other end of the intelligence scale is eggheadery, which derives from the noun egghead, applied to an intellectual or “high-browed” person—one with a stereotypical brow as smoothly rounded as an egg.

Quacksalvery pertains to the activities of quacksalvers—ignorant people peddling miracle cures. The derivation seems to come from salve, meaning “ointment”, and an analogy between the quacking of a duck and the meaningless speech of the quacksalver. The word has now been abbreviated to just plain quack, for a bogus doctor. Another word applying to the same deceitful profession is mountebankerymountebanks take their name from Italian montimbanco “mount-on-bench”, because they would often climb on to a chair to address their audience and peddle their wares.

Thimbleriggery is another deceitful profession—that of the thimblerigger. The reference is to the old “hunt the pea” sleight of hand trick, performed with three thimbles (or inverted cups) and a single pea, but it has application to anyone who cheats you by nimble deception.

Jiggery-pokery is another word for manipulative deceit. It comes from the Scots joukery-pawkery, and in my home town a hybrid version, joukery-pokery is still in current use. In Scots, to jouk is to dodge or dive; and a pawky person is sly, though the word has now acquired light-hearted connotations—in the phrase “a pawky sense of humour”, pawky could perhaps best be translated as “arch”.

While we’re on the subject of deceit, scallywaggery covers all possible modes—the derivation of scallywag is obscure, but it’s a word applied to deceitful, disreputable or just plain idle folk.

Swashbucklery, on the other hand, is all about noisy activity. A swashbuckler is a person who swashes a buckler—that is, strikes a shield noisily (with a sword or other weapon). It’s a rather dismissive term for those who indulge in swaggering braggadocio. To swashbuckle is to indulge in swashbucklery—a verb back-formed from the original swashbuckler.

Gimcrackery is a collection of gimcracks—tawdry and worthless ornaments. Be sure to pronounce it with a soft “g”. The etymology is obscure, but it seems to refer to an object that breaks easily.

Godwottery is an over-elaborate style of gardening. It takes its mocking origin from a poem by T.E. Brown entitled “My Garden“, which opens with the line:

A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!

Wot is the third person singular of the old verb wit, meaning “to know”, and “God wot!” was a common enough exclamation in Shakespeare’s time, meaning something like “It is certainly so!” The Victorian poets briefly revived the expression, as they did with so much archaic language.

Finally, I’ll leave you with one of the many words coined by James Joyce in Finnegans WakeScandiknavery. Which is a deceit perpetrated by one or more Scandinavians.

3 thoughts on “Pettifoggery, etc”

  1. I am, only slightly, embarrassed to admit that I first became aware of pettifoggery by reading the comic strip “The Wizard of Id”. One of the characters, a lawyer naturally, was named Larsen E. Pettifogger. That character also behaved like W.C. Fields on-screen persona so I got introduced to two new paradigms in one go.

    Was pettifoggery really that unknown a word or concept before the recent “trial’? I have to admit that I never ran across any article or news item discussing Robert’s use of it. But, then again, I did try to blank out those proceedings as much as possible.

    Loonspuddery is a word that I have never run across before.

    1. There was reportedly a spike in internet searches for “pettifogging” immediately after Roberts used it. Explanations appeared in a couple of British newspapers and on the BBC News website, which is what attracted my attention to it as a “word of current interest”. Once I looked, I turned up a number of articles on American news sites, too, addressing the meaning of the word.

  2. Aha, I should have been aware of its re-emergence.

    I think I was especially sick of any mention of Trump at that time and avoided looking at articles about the US Senate going-ons on the BBC site. I have a subscription to the NY Times and the whole thing was wearing me down to the extent that I was often avoiding reading about the machinations of that farcical event.

    I am unable to find a mention about it on the, Australian, ABC New site and the local paper had nothing about it. Of course the local paper here makes Murdoch’s papers look like bastions of journalistic excellence.

    It goes to show what you can miss if you blinker your view.

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