What is the origin of `nit picking’?

Monkeys and gorillas do this all the time. Among human beings, mothers perform this duty once in a while. Any idea what a nit is? Most of us have come home with this unwanted visitor on a few occasions. Nits are the eggs of lice or any other parasitic insects. When our head becomes infested with lice, what is it that our mothers do? They run a special comb through our hair and then peer intently at the comb. Whenever they spot a louse, they proceed to squash the insect; they pick them off one by one. Getting rid of these small, but irritating insects from one’s head can be an overwhelming task. Every inch of the head has to be carefully examined and you spend a lot of time looking for them.

The original meaning of nitpicking was therefore looking for lice and their eggs. With the passage of time, however, the expression acquired another meaning. It began to be used to refer to someone who looks at the trivial details and finds faults with them.

*There was a lot of nitpicking going on as to what type of bouquet should be given to the chief guest. *Let’s stop with the nitpicking. Tell me what you think of the plan.

Source: The Hindu ‘Know Your English’ Series, December 5, 2005.


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