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Chris -- 2018-04-11
The expression “to search using a fine-tooth comb” steams from the unpleasant task of looking for headlice investing, predominantly, children. The implement used is a comb with its teeth very close together (fine as in fine mesh, not fine as in very narrow teeth, leaving large gaps, nor fine as in opulently decorated, or extensive), so that the eggs or “nits” can be combed out.
The derivative is not that the words are altered, but the stress of those words has changed, so that the phase is now nonsensical. It is now, very commonly, announced “fine toothcomb” an example of which is used by inspector Barnaby in “Midsomer Murders”. I wonder what other kind of comb there could be: “haircomb”, “nosecomb” ...
I haven’t yet come across this in print, but I’m sure it must exist somewhere. Of course, there are true uses of the word: the front teeth of the lemur are sometimes known as a toothcomb, but I’m sure that this is not how the expression is truly being used.
On the other ham, perhaps it is. I can imagine Tom Barnaby rumpaging through evidence like a lemur through, whatever lemurs find their food in. They may also use these teeth to remove para’s sites from each other, in which case, “toothcomb” would be the correct etymology; but fine? Lemurs, I’m sure wouldn’t have the cash to buy expensive teeth, nor would they admire their husband’s set and say “that’s a fine toothcomb you have there.”
Or am I just nit-picnicking?
I have seen this one in print many times, mostly in books from England from 1920-1970 or so. Often the ‘fine’ is dropped and we are left with “I went through it with a toothcomb.” Not one of those toothless combs.
It’s interesting how idioms persist well after the original context is lost—in this case, the removal of nits from hair. This situation reminds me somewhat of the expression “nothing to sneeze at” which has occasionally been altered to “nothing to sneer at.” (I posted on this months back, and I think there are a few other such examples in the Forum). Indeed, the gradual loss of the original context begets many an eggcorn.
Last edited by jorkel (2007-03-09 13:12:54)