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What Is Pettifogging?

In this image from video, presiding officer Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts speaks during the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. (Senate Television via AP)
What Is Pettifogging?
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The little-known word “pettifogging” was used during a 1905 impeachment trial of a judge. This week, Chief Justice John Roberts used it again during the impeachment trial of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Roberts is the presiding officer of the trial. He did not say much during the trial’s first day. Instead, the impeachment managers from the House of Representatives and the president’s lawyers argued about the charges against Trump.

Late at night, however, the arguments became heated.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, a Democrat, wanted the Republican-controlled Senate to permit witnesses at the trial. He told senators that a vote to deny witnesses was a “treacherous vote.” He added that it would be “a vote against an honest trial. A vote against the United States."

In answer to that, White House counsel Pat Cipollone said, "The only one who should be embarrassed, Mr. Nadler, is you. For the way you addressed this body. This is the United States Senate. You're not in charge here."

Twelve hours into his position as presiding officer, Roberts reminded everyone who was in charge. He issued a warning for both sides to avoid the use of strong language.

Roberts said, "In the 1905 Swayne trial, a senator objected when one of the managers used the word 'pettifogging' and the presiding officer said the word ought not to have been used. I don't think we need to aspire to that high of a standard, but I do think those addressing the Senate should remember where they are."

Overnight, dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster reported, the lookups for the word “pettifogger” went up by over 30,000 percent.

So, what does this word mean?

Let's break it down. Petti- comes from the adjective “petty,” which means “not very important or serious.” And -fogger may come from an old slang word that meant “a whining beggar.”

Merriam-Webster says pettifogger has two main meanings. The first is “a lawyer whose methods are petty, underhanded, or disreputable.” The second meaning is “one given to quibbling over trifles.” Quibble is another word for argue. And a trifle is something that is unimportant or of little value.

Pettifogging means “worrying too much about details that are minor or not important,” says Merriam-Webster’s Learning English dictionary.

Roberts was noting that the two sides were arguing over small, unimportant issues as they addressed “the world’s greatest deliberative body.”

I’m Ashley Thompson.

Hai Do wrote this story for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.


Words in This Story

manager - n. someone who is in charge

treacherous - adj. something that can not be trusted

embarrassed - adj. feeling or looking foolish in public

aspire - v. to want to achieve something

standard - n. a level of achievement that is considered desirable

slang - n. words that are used very informally by a particular group of people

whine - v. to complain in an annoying way

beggar - n. a person who lives by begging for money

deliberative - adj. done in order to discuss and consider facts and reasons carefully