If I had nits I would like someone to pick them out. It has come to mean basically unnecessary critism or pedantry in modern usage.


Did people of a certain time just accept lice as a fact of life and there was no real point in taking out the nits?

The thing that got me thinking about it was listening to a podcast talking about how macaques groom the nits out of each other's fur. It is a positive benefit for them. I was wondering how humans coped with lice and nits before we had toxic chemicals to deal with the problem.

Here's an article on it if you're interested.

  • 3
    It's because nobody you or I know gets lice anymore, so the term is only used figuratively to mean picking at very tiny problems. – Hot Licks Mar 29 '17 at 2:28
  • 1
    There's nothing wrong with polishing an apple either. – Ricky Mar 29 '17 at 2:33
  • On the face of it, that is. – Ricky Mar 29 '17 at 2:33

People did not accept lice as a fact of life. A brief history of head lice notes that (http://nuvoforheadlice.com/test/?page_id=101)

c. 64 AD Dioscorides of Anazarbus, who was a Greek physician in Nero’s army, wrote “De materia medica”, which was the western world standard pharmaceutical text for the next 1600 years.[Dioscorides, 64 AD] He suggested that an application of a pitch called Cedria (oil of cedar), derived either from Kedros (Cedrus libani) or from Cedrelate (Juniperus excelsa), “rubbed on kills lice and nits.” Similarly, he recommended that a heated rub of the fruit of the Myrica (Tamarix germanica, Linnaeus) “is good for those with lice and nits.” He noted that Garlic boiled with Oregano kills lice and bed bugs. He discussed internal medical uses of the powdered seeds of Stavesacre(*) (Delphinium Staphisagria), but did not consider the use of the powdered seeds as a pediculicide.

The writer cautions that these ancient remedies may be poisonous.

He also notes that human lice separated genetically from the lice chimpanzees get some 5.6 million years ago (before the development of modern humans), and recounts the various treatments developed by the U.S. military and made available to the public (.ca 1940s). Head lice have become resistant to some of these treatments.

I do not know how common head lice (the nits are the eggs) are today; various articles on the Internet discuss treatment in the form, generally, of a lotion or shampoo, which often can be purchased over the counter (without prescription) at a pharmacy. Head lice are highly contagious but not, according to these articles, dangerous; but children with head lice may not be allowed to return immediately to school

Monkeys (and chimpanzees) groom one another by "picking nits," but the treatment for humans depends on killing all of them at once.

There's also a expression "nits and gnats." It shows up on Ngram but is usually transcribed as "nits and nats" (which doesn't show up on Ngram), since the g isn't pronounced:

U.S.-Soviet Accord Near, Shultz Says : Only 'Nits and Gnats' Block Agreement on Missiles, He Asserts (Los Angeles Times, September 14, 1987).

Gnats are small insects that fly in a swarm.

  • +1 Note: DNA studies show that body lice separated from head lice roughly 170,000 years ago, thus dating the beginning of wearing clothes. dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1345109/… – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Mar 29 '17 at 3:52
  • I appreciate the research, but I think it has negative connotations because it's used that way (i.e., with negative valence) not because people actually have the the mechanics of nit-picking in mind. No one uses it to call out an impractical strategy of focusing on small problems one-by-one when a more comprehensive treatment is available. Conventionally, it's "an excessive focus on minor elements that do not practically diminish the overall character of the whole (and therefore do not require an abundance of attention at this time)." Perhaps that's true of any one individual nit, but, still. – MDHunter Mar 29 '17 at 12:16
  • @MCHunter I agree with you. There is the idea of overlooking the big picture and focusing on small matters. In the Shultz quote cited above, the two sides worked hard on what Shultz called nits and gnats before the treaty was signed. – Xanne Mar 29 '17 at 20:10

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