Thursday, June 22, 2006

definition

definition

Sometimes people ask me "shouldn't that be muggenzifter?", and by this show they are mugge(n)zifters themselves. The word literally means "gnat-sifter", and it is usually translated as nit-picker.
Many people are uncertain about the correct spelling, because of a recent spelling reform which added an "n" in the middle of a lot of similarly stuctured words- for instance, "kippesoep" (chicken soup) became "kippensoep", which looks strange, because by the old rule this would imply the soup is always made using more than one chicken.
In true mugge(n)zifting spirit, I went to the library to consult old and new dictionaries on the subject. To my surprise I found all but one of them have "muggenzifter" and do not even mention the "muggezifter" variant. The exception is "Van Dale's Hedendaags Nederlands" ("Van Dale's Contemporary Dutch") from 1994. It only has "muggezifter" and doesn't mention the other version, which is odd, because its parent dictionary has it the other way round. Have I stumbled on a cold war that divided Van Dale's editorial offices during the 90s?
Finally I turned to the monumental "Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal", a dictionary that took from 1864 to 1998 to be published. For every word it gives sample quotations from between the 15th century and 1921 (originally the compilers tried to stay up to date, but when they found the language was changing more quickly than the dictionary could be completed, 1921 was chosen as the closing year)
The WNT gives "muggenzifter" as the correct spelling, but 3 of the 5 examples are missing the n. So I'm off the hook; if "muggezifter" was good enough for Justus van Effen, it's good enough for me. Interestingly, most of the quotations combine the word with some version of "kemelverslinder" ("devourer of camels"), a word I wasn't aware of. The implication is that such a person likes to point out small mistakes but will happily swallow large absurdities. I like that word. If I ever need another nick...
The WNT makes a point of mentioning that the female version ("muggenzifster") is "uncommon". I won't comment on that.

13 comments:

pat said...

Now that I now what means nit (my extra-mini dictionary was missing that word) I can comment.
Uncommon? It means that a lady that picks nits is uncommon? This translations and interpretations could take to very strange thoughts...I think.

muggezifter said...

Well, if we can not believe the dictionary, who can we believe?

pat said...

which -could- mean that the dictionary is the only book that say the truth. uhm...I've never thought about it in this way...

muggezifter said...

I just found out this actually comes from the Bible. Matthew 23:24 "Ye blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!"
I can not inagine the dictionary did not mention this, I must have overlooked it somehow...

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