TNQDE: Aren’t We Picky, Mr. Pernicky?

Today’s word request is from my grandmother, who I get my writerly inclinations from and whose imagination in suggesting words I now officially love.

“persnickety”

I always start my word explorations with the good old A.H.C.D., the first tool I was introduced to in my wonderful introductory etymology class way back when I wasn’t old enough to buy wine. A good layperson’s dictionary holds more information than you might imagine about many words and, unlike the venerable O.E.D., did not require me to shell out and entire month’s salary to obtain a copy for my personal library.

Sometimes, however, a normal dictionary just won’t cut it. Under “persnickety,” the only etymological note was that the word is a variation on “pernickety.” Baffled, I flipped back to the “pern-“s and, sure enough, found “pernickety.” Amusingly, “pernickety” was defined by one word. Any guesses? That’s right: “persnickety.” They can get away with this, since “persnickety” is most likely much more common and was itself actually defined, but they did not add any additional etymological information save for this: [?].

In other words, the good folks at the A.H.C.D. don’t know where the word came from.

The O.E.D. was a little more helpful. The folks who work on the O.E.D. specialize more in collecting earliest extant examples of word usage and are more willing to spend precious space on words denoting uncertainty, such as “obscure origin” and “possibly.” From what I gathered, they don’t know where the word came from either, other than the interesting tidbit that it first showed up in a piece of Scottish writing in 1808 with the spelling of “pernickitie” and is related to the shorter Scottish word “pernicky,” which means exactly the same thing as “persnickety.”

The origin of “pernicky” is thought to be a childish attempt at “particular.” Don’t wrinkle your nose in befuddlement: wrinkle your tongue. Say the sound “t” makes. Where’s your tongue? Now say the sound “n” makes. Where’s your tongue? Lights coming on yet? The difference between “t” and “n” is a fairly small matter in the world of letters. Saying “t” after a vowel/glide combo (e.g., “ar”) requires you to not only move your tongue, but also stop the vibration of your vocal chords and interrupt the flow of air passing through your lips. Saying “n” after the same combo only requires you to adjust the tongue. In short, for young speakers, it’s an easy and understandable mistake.

The transition from “pernicky” to “pernickety” is also easy to put down to childish transformations of a word, though to more deliberately playful ones. The O.E.D. suggests that the change came from association with the “knick” and “knack” group of words, which have been around since at least 1618 [s.v. “knick-knack”, OED], and of which we have a rich bounty of transformed examples: knick-knackery and knickety-knackety among them. In the course of making fun of fussy children on the playground through taunts that put to use the linguistic skills young schoolchildren are busily acquiring (rhyme and rhythm), it’s easy to imagine an extra, unstressed syllable making its way into “pernicky” to create the current “pernickety.”

Notice, however, that we’re still missing the “s” that would get us to the modern day word Grammy asked about. It might seem like a small thing, this one little letter, but it represents a very legitimate hole in the middle of our understanding. The OED did not so much as have an entry for “persnickety” in their concise version, which leads me to suspect that they don’t know either. More word play? Borrowing from the sound of Carroll’s vorpal sword, perhaps?

Like the number of licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie pop, the world may never know.

 

5 thoughts on “TNQDE: Aren’t We Picky, Mr. Pernicky?

  1. Boy oh boy, do you ever get a lot of information. I have just had an entire education on the word which, in my mind is an “old fashion” word not used much today. I was surprised the other day when I heard itagain. I do know my mother used it often.

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  2. Or more simply “pernicky” could just be a playful version of “picky”. That would explain the whole chain, “picky” -> “pernicky” -> “pernickety” -> “persnickety” by a single mechanism: the use of humour to talk about a silly behaviour in a light-hearted manner, leading to more and more flowery versions of the underlying word, “picky”.

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  3. Hmm. Maybe. The A.H.C.D. has nothing to say on the origin of “picky,” and I don’t currently have access to a copy of the O.E.D., so the best reference I can offer is the Online Etymology Dictionary, which places the first written usage of “picky” at 1867*, more than half a century after the first extant example of “pernickitie” appears. That would, to me, suggest that the words came about through different paths, maybe in different locals, but perhaps there was something of an assimilation effect going on? You might be right, and as armchair etymology goes the argument has appeal, but it’s a conjecture I’d have to find evidence in support of to be entirely persuaded.

    *http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=picky

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