This post is really about language, thought it might not seem like it at first.
This afternoon, we went to a lice removal specialist up in Burlingame. We’d done the pesticide shampoo, we’d washed bedding and clothing in hot water, but it’s really hard to be patient enough to spend an hour combing through your partner’s hair to remove nits, and then spend another hour having your partner comb through your hair. We decided it was worth it to us to spend the money to have someone else do it for us.
As I sat there, I realized that what the fellow was doing to me was picking nits — he was, in fact, a professional nitpicker. As it is usually used, the word “nitpicker” has negative connotations: it means someone who pays too much attention to detail, who doesn’t see the forest for the trees, a micro-manager. But if you’re getting rid of a live infestation, you really, really want obsessive attention to detail. Thus it is curious that the word “nitpicker” has negative connotations; it makes more sense to me that it should have positive connotations.
But language changes over time, and the meanings of words often evolve away from their original meanings. So nowadays it is no longer a compliment to call someone a nitpicker.