Q: I was under the impression “nitpicking” was a seriously racist phrase, originating from when slaves picked cotton. Am I incorrect about this?
A: “Nitpicking” isn’t racist, and it doesn’t come from picking cotton.
The term originally referred to picking nits, the eggs of lice, from hair, and later to picking out the lice themselves, as in this 19th-century image by the German photographer Giorgio Sommer of a Neapolitan woman and her children.
The word “nit” is very old, with roots in two reconstructed prehistoric languages—ancient Germanic (hnitö) and Indo-European (knid-), according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. It was spelled hnitu when it showed up in early Old English.
The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a Latin-Old English entry in the the Epinal Glossary, believed written in the late 600s: “Lendina, hnitu.”
And here’s a Middle English example that refers to picking lice and nits from men’s heads:
“She can wel pyke out lyse and netis out of mens heedis” (from The History of Reynard the Fox, William Caxton’s 1481 translation of the Reynard fables from Middle Dutch).
The word “nit” has been used figuratively since Shakespeare’s time to mean “an insignificant, inconsequential, or contemptible person,” according to the OED, and later “a foolish, stupid, or incompetent person.”
In this expanded OED citation, from The Taming of the Shrew, written in the early 1590s, Petruchio berates Kate’s tailor:
“O monstrous arrogance! Thou liest, thou thread, thou thimble, / Thou yard, three-quarters, half-yard, quarter, nail! / Thou flea, thou nit, thou winter cricket thou!”
The figurative terms “nitpick” (to criticize overzealously), “nitpicker” (a pedantic fault finder), and “nitpicking” (petty criticism) showed up in the mid-20th century.
The first OED example for “nitpicker” is from the November 1951 issue of Collier’s: “nit-pickers are those who quarrel with trivialities of expression and meaning.”
The earliest “nitpicking” citation is from the Dec. 21, 1951, issue of the Charleston (WV) Daily Mail: “Sen. Johnson is encouraged to proceed with his nit picking.”
Finally, the dictionary’s first example for the verb “nitpick” is from the 1956 issue of the journal Military Affairs:
“His decisions in the main were so well conceived and executed that it would be quibbling to ‘nit-pick’ those few instances where his judgment was fallible.”
Although these terms were often hyphenated or written as two words in the past, “nitpick,” “nitpicker,” and “nitpicking” are usually single words today.