Quibble

What I really need is a robot rabbit butler.

Dear Word Detective: My sister introduced me to your website because you are the only other person besides her who has questioned the actual existence of Idaho. She says they pay people from Montana to say they’re from Idaho. But why? Anyway, my favorite word is “quibble.” I love this word, but it sounds more like the name of a British butler or a pet rabbit than a verb. Can you tell me the origin of it? — Elaine M., Houston, TX.

idaho08.pngAha! After all these years, the truth is seeping out. Back in 1996 I suggested that Idaho was a myth, a state producing nothing but potatoes being clearly a joke. In fact, as I pointed out at the time, “Idaho” was first proposed as a name for what is now the state of Colorado, and folks originally wanted to call what is now supposedly Idaho “Montana.” Obviously, something funny was going on out there, and it continues to this day. As to why Montanans would claim to be from Idaho, think about it. There are, what, 179 people living in Montana? If they split all the federal tax money going to “Idaho,” there’s gonna be a lot of plasma TVs in Butte, if you get my drift. Incidentally, potatoes come from Maine, where the locals call them “dirt oysters.”

“Quibble” would make a good name for a butler, or a rabbit, or perhaps a rabbit butler. But in general usage a “quibble” is a minor point of contention, a small objection, a detail to be worked out. As a verb, “to quibble” means to argue over small matters, to bicker, to “sweat the small stuff.” There is often the added sense in “quibble” that small issues are being raised in order to divert an argument over important matters (“You stole my watch. I’m not going to quibble over whether it keeps good time.”).

When “quibble” first appeared in English in the early 17th century, however, it meant “a play on words, a pun.” By the end of the century, it was being used to mean “an evasion in argument; a specious minor point, especially one centering on the similarity of two words.” Both of these uses reflect the origins of “quibble” in legal jargon. It was derived from “quib,” a 16th century legal term meaning “evasion of the point at issue,” which itself was drawn from the Latin “quibus,” meaning “by what things?” Apparently “quibus” was so overused in legal arguments of the day that “quib” became lawyers’ shorthand for a trivial, evasive argument, a squabble without real substance cooked up to muddy the legal waters. Thus “quibble” is the legacy of a time when even lawyers had had enough of silly arguments.

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