Douglas G. Wilson
douglas at NB.NET
Sat Aug 7 17:51:27 UTC 2004
>This week's World Wide Words newsletter contains a short item on the
>American slang term "nitnoid", for some matter that is unimportant
>but annoying, or a person who takes a pedantic nit-picking attitude
>to life. In the absence of firm data, I speculated that it came from
>"nit-picking", but several subscribers have suggested it is from the
>Thai phrase "nit noi", for a very small amount of something, brought
>back to the US by servicemen after the Vietnam war. Can anybody point
>to evidence that confirms or refutes this?
Google Groups shows this "nitnoid" only from 1992. I don't find the word in
dictionaries except for Paul Dickson's recent "War Slang" which shows it as
"nittenoid" ... not from Vietnam but from the Gulf War.
I don't find it in on-line newspaper search at all. I've never heard it
myself AFAIK (guess I haven't been getting out enough).
I am happy to say however that I believe we can take this Thai etymology as
presumptively correct (so we do have Thai loan-words for non-Thai-related
things after all).
"Nit noi" is everyday conventional Thai for "a little" or "a little bit".
One would expect it to be adopted into English as "nitnoy" meaning "a
little bit" (compare synonymous "sukoshi" > "skosh" = "a little bit" from
Japanese). The expression does occur in US military pidgin-Thai in this
sense (e.g., AFAIK "nit noi baht" would typically mean "[have] [only] a
little money" and would not imply obsession with trivia or any such thing).
So why the mutation?
I speculate that the English "nit" = "[trivial] detail"/"quibble"
(back-formation from "nit-picking", I suppose) was conflated with "nit noi"
by persons (e.g., Vietnam veterans) who were acquainted with Thai (perhaps
only superficially): i.e., "nit noi" was taken as "something tiny" (pretty
close to its usual sense). This has a nice sound something like
"knick-knack". Later it was (optionally) amended to match nouns and
adjectives in "-oid", e.g., "paranoid", "factoid".
For documentation I turn to Usenet (via Google Groups):
[in digest 16 May 1985]
Date: Tuesday, 14 May 1985 12:44-EDT
From: rrd at Mitre-Bedford
Re Hank Walker's message in Digest 18 ....
It is too bad that Hank's knowledge of the SEAsia was doesn't go
back beyond the early 70's because that was the time the US had made
the decision to wind down and get out. ....
A few comments and nit noi's on Hank's remarks. ....
Here "nit noi" apparently means "quibble".
Later items often use the spelling "nit noy" or "nitnoy". One random example:
From: William K. Horne (whorne at mail.public.lib.ga.us)
Subject: Re: Netscape1.1b1 doesn't <blink>
Date: 1995-03-23 06:04:53 PST
<<Sheesh. Just a few weeks ago, folks were complaining that it blinks. Now
what have we got? The dang thing will blink or not blink at your choice if
you'll RTFM. And that's the way it should be. Quit whining about nit noy
Here "nit noy" = "trivial" or so, and the context is not Southeast-Asian.
Apparently "nit noy" and "nitnoid" (and other spellings) are about the
same, and current. Something for the next edition of the dictionary.
-- Doug Wilson
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