the password is PETTIFOGGER

by santoki

As much as it pains me to admit, reading the Patrick O’Brian series does not make one knowledgeable in the language of bygone days. So, when introduced to “pettifog, or pettifoggery” by Mr. B.H. McTease of Chicago, I must claim ignorance.

After a bit of research, I have discovered a few things that I love about this word. The first, of no real consequence, is that “pettifog” is a back-formation of “pettifogger.” In the same way that “googling oneself” is based on Google, such is the case. Back-formation.

jakobfugger.jpg Funnily, there is no infamous Mr. Pettifogger. Rather, it is rumored that it is based on an old Bavarian family called the Fuggers. In Deutschland, their name became synonymous with scheming, duplicity, monopolistic practices, and an excellent handling of large sums of cash. They were also well known for their patronage to the arts. In any case, their riches declined with the Hapsburg empire though their legacy lives on.

Aside: There is an anecdote in one of the POB novels, though I can’t seem to remember which one, where Aubrey and Maturin are eating dinner with a few others of the naval line. Another captain at the table starts going on and on about wanting to find a reliable banker. “Another Fugger. ” Aubrey completely mishears and hilarity ensues! A riot! Genius! Um… maybe you had to be there.

Back to the pettifogger:

(n.) 1. A petty, quibbling, unscrupulous lawyer. 2. One who quibbles over trivia. [Probably petty + obsolete fogger, pettifogger.] [1]

(v) (used w/o object), -fogged, -fog·ging, 1. To bicker or quibble over trifles or unimportant matters. 2. To carry on a petty, shifty, or unethical law business. 3. To practice chicanery of any sort. [2]

Etymology: 1564, from petty (q.v.), the second element possibly from obs. Du. focker, from Flem. focken “to cheat,” or from cognate M.E. fugger, from Fugger the renowned family of merchants and financiers of 15c.-16c. Augsburg. In Ger., Flem. and Du., the name became a word for “monopolist, rich man, usurer.” [3]

In short, a pettifogger is a mere shadow of the monopolist one could be with a little more effort. And the word sounded so charming!


[1] “pettifogger” The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.

[2] “pettifogger.” Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 03 May. 2007.

[3] “pettifogger.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. 03 May. 2007.