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.
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.