Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Impiousness nibblenips

Though Ron Paul finished well behind Romney in the New Hampshire primary, he was upbeat: "We're nibbling at his heels," he said.

I had never heard this variant on "nipping at one's heels," but it seemed so natural and plausible, I thought for sure it would be in the Eggcorn Database. But no; it's not there, and though the nibbling version gets a handful of Google hits, it doesn't come close to rivaling the standard nipping idiom.

That suits my sense of the words; I think of nipping (at someone's heels) as aggressive behavior, like herding sheep or chasing prey. Nibbling, on the other hand, means eating in tiny increments, or at least pretending to eat, and isn't a hostile act. The OED definition: "To take a small bite, or a series of small bites, at or from (a thing); to bite away gradually; to bite tentatively, delicately, playfully, or amorously."

There has been, historically, some overlap in the verbs' senses -- but not in the direction of the Ron Paul substitution. It's nip, which implies a a pinching action, that has sometimes been used as a synonym for nibble, according the the OED:
The milkcows were nipping the clovery parks (1839).
That durn brute was shakin' his ears and nippin' grass unconcerned as a can o' green corn. (1900)
Apparently, though, there have been moments when a writer felt the need of both verbs at once. And because one of those writers was George Meredith,* the OED has also recorded the "rare" word nibblenip, meaning, naturally, "to nibble and nip." The illustrative quote, from a poem of Meredith's (1883): "Haggard Wisdom, stately once, Leers fantastical and trips: Allegory drums the sconce, Impiousness nibblenips."

Maybe that's the word Ron Paul was looking for: "We're nibblenipping at his heels!" It does have a certain ring to it.

*The quoted lines will hardly recommend him, but Meredith wrote (among many other things) a comic-romantic-feminist novel every bit as deserving of a miniseries as "Jane Eyre" or "Sense and Sensibility." "Downton Abbey" is all very well, but every year I'm amazed that there's still no screen version of "The Egoist." 

12 comments:

T. Roger Thomas said...

The "amorously" part of the definition does cast a different meaning on the expression doesn't it?

tudza said...

Ron Paul should be nipping at his heals as he nibbles away at his lead.

Dawn in NL said...

I am more familiar with "snapping at his heels".

Dawn in NL said...

I am more familiar with "snapping at his heels".

Bryan M. White said...

To me, "nibbling at his heels" has an unintentionally subservient sound to it, as though Paul is desperately scrambling for the crumbs Romney is leaving in his wake. At the very least, it makes him sound like a bit of a fool.

A woman that I work with came back from sick leave yesterday. She kept saying that she had had "ammonia". I wanted to ask her if she'd caught it from drinking a bottle of window cleaner, but I decided to be nice instead.

Matthew said...

Nibbling at the heels is what happens in those fish pedicures.

Normally, to such a confused, elderly person like Paul, who has long marinated in his own cult, I'd be more circumspect, but I imagine he also says things like: "like a cat out of hell," "the fat is out of the bag" and, when in South Carolina, "the chitlins are coming home to roost!"

Jonathon said...

Ron Paul with Mitt Romney's feet in his mouth is not an image I wanted in my head.

Ø said...

I think Tudza is on to something: "nibbling away at his lead" is a perfectly good way to express the idea, if a bit unambitious for use in a public statement.

"Snapping at his heels" makes me think of the line from All About Eve: "What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end."

Jan said...

Google Ngram search suggests that "nipping" and "snapping" are both common in AmE, but BrE greatly favors the "snapping" version.

Gregory Lee said...

So "Nibbling, ... isn't a hostile act."? I would take someone's eating my heels in small increments as definitely hostile.

--Greg

John Lawler said...

Nip and nibble are related, as it turns out. And not just to each other. Here's the AHD of IE Roots' entry for the root *ken²:

"Hypothetical base of a number of loosely related Germanic words referring to pinching, closing the eyes, and other obscurely associated notions."

The list of English words that (supposedly) come from this root, through various sources, include nap, nip, neap, niggard, nibble, nod, and the other nap, referring to the pile on fabric. This is quite an assemblage of weird words.

Anonymous said...

I'm with you about "The Egoist"! I think it would do very well as a miniseries, and it's a wonderful read!

Not that its feminism goes very far, but that's only to be expected.