I can't remember where I came across the word pettifogger, but I noted it down a while ago to look into. I found a range of definitions. Webster's New World captured most of them with its entry:
- 1. a lawyer who handles petty cases, especially one who uses unethical methods in conducting trumped-up cases
- 2. a trickster; cheater
- 3. a quibbler
The OED's entry is a bit different, but that dictionary has the best etymology, so here is its definitions:
- 1. Originally: an inferior legal practitioner who dealt with petty cases; formerly occasionally also as a professional name (now historical). Hence: a lawyer who engages in petty quibbling and cavilling, or who employs dubious or underhanded legal practices; a lawyer who abuses the law. Usually derogatory.
- 2. A petty practitioner in any activity, a beginner, novice; especially one who makes false claims to skill or knowledge, a charlatan, pretender.
Pettifogger comes from a combination of petty and fogger. A fogger, according to the OED, is:
- 1. A person given to underhand practices for the sake of gain; chiefly, a contemptuous designation for a lawyer of a low class. Usually preceded by petty (see pettifogger). Obsolete.
- 2. dialect ‘A huckster; a petty chapman carrying small wares from village to village’.
The OED has an interesting, long etymology for fogger:
- The name passed as an appellative into several European languages. In German fugger, fucker, focker has had the senses ‘monopolist, engrosser’, ‘usurer’, ‘man of great wealth’, ‘great merchant’, and, in certain dialects (doubtless originally through ironical use), ‘huckster, pedlar.’ Kilian 1598 has Flemish focker ‘monopolist, universal dealer’ (monopola, pantopola), giving fuggerus and fuccardus as popular modern Latin equivalents; and in modern Dutch rijke fokker is an avaricious rich man. Walloon foukeur and Spanish fúcar are contemptuous designations for a man of great wealth. A ‘petty Fugger’ would mean one who on a small scale practises the dishonourable devices for gain popularly attributed to great financiers; it seems possible that the phrase ‘petty fogger of the law’, applied in this sense to some notorious person, may have caught the popular fancy, and so have given rise to the specialized use in sense 1. Sense 2 was already developed in German dialects, though the channel by which it came to England is unknown.
I thought it was interesting that there is a non-English word fucker, and all those other variants that sound close phonetically. It seems especially apt since it and all the variants seem to be terms of contempt.