The Nitty-Gritty

Ask the DOC

There are some people who have elevated nitpicking to an art form. You probably know one or two. Take, for example, some Star Trek fans. There is actually a guide for them called, "The Nitpicker’s Guide for Classic Trekkers." In an episode that aired on March 2, 1967 called, "This Side of Paradise," Spock and Leila Kalomi, an old friend of his, are searching for spores. She comments, “It’s not much further.” According to the Guide, it should have been, “It’s not much farther.” Further and farther are used interchangeably, but farther tends to describe physical distance, while further often means to a greater extent.

As used above, the word, “nitpick,” means to be excessively concerned with minor details. It comes from an older expression, “to pick out nits,” which refers to the tedious task of removing nits, or tiny lice eggs, from someone’s hair. Humans and lice have had a long history together. Evidence of lice infestation was found on a 10,000-year-old Brazilian mummy. Lice combs date back to antiquity. These specialized combs feature fine teeth designed to remove lice and nits from human hair. They were made of wood, ivory, bone, or, rarely, precious metals. The expression, “to go over (something) with a fine-tooth comb,” is based on the ancient, and modern use of lice combs.

Manually removing nits is illustrated in a painting by the Dutch master Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684) known as “A Mother’s Duty.” It shows a mother carefully inspecting and delousing her kneeling child’s hair. Scenes of domestic life were popular subjects of paintings from 17th century Holland. Cleaning of the hair symbolized the pursuit of a clean life both in a physical and spiritual sense. Head lice nits stick to human hair through a special glue secreted by female lice that forms a protective sheath for the newly laid eggs. The sheath is similar to human hair. Pubic lice nits also attach to hair, but in a more embarrassing location, although they can be found on other body hair. Pubic lice are often spread by sexual contact and their presence on children may indicate sexual abuse.

Body lice are often found on clothing and bedding, but occasionally the nits may attach to hair. Body lice, unlike head and pubic lice, may be carriers of infectious diseases such as epidemic typhus, relapsing fever, and trench fever. Head lice can be treated with over-the-counter medications like pyrethrins and permethrin lotion, however drug resistance in lice is a growing concern. Alternatively, a number of prescription medications are available. The ancient parental duty of combing infested hair is still an important part of the treatment regimen. Hopefully, better medications to treat lice will become available further down the road. Or is it farther?

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