Miles Kington: Putting the nits back into nit-picking

'Pearls before swine, indeed! The pig is one of the noblest and finest animals known to man'
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The Independent Online

I have received many letters in connection with the recent terrorist attacks on the United States, and think it only right to print a few of the more thought-provoking ones today.

 

Sir, Am I the only person to have felt a little sick when President George W Bush went on TV and said he was going to take revenge on the "folks who committed this act"?

As ex-President of the Folk Song and Dance Group of Great Britain, I am sick and tired of people using the word "folk" or "folks" as a sort of derisive shorthand term. Either it is used in a chummy, patronising way (as in the adjective "folksy") or it is used slightly threateningly (as in "You folk are just going to have to get used to the idea"). Now, President Bush has added a new danger to the word, suggesting that folks are also terrorists and assassins!

Well, we folk music enthusiasts say that enough is enough. At this time of world tension, I might be seen to be nit-picking, but someone has to make a stand somewhere.

Mr Nigel Quantock

 

Sir, I was somewhat saddened to read the previous letter, with which I totally agreed until I came to the expression in the last paragraph.

As an entomologist, I have spent my whole life listening to people speak disdainfully of the insect world, using insect imagery such as "nit-picking" to express contempt. A nit is not just a nuisance on your head. It is a fascinating organism. When we call someone a "louse" we imply that "lice" are somehow despicable. They are not – they are a life's study.

Well, in my case the worm is turning at last! I maintain that the insect world is populated by the most amazing examples of creation, and is the last unexplored territory and the last to give up its wonders. Perhaps we would be more aware of this if we didn't persist in running down insects the whole time.

Professor Sir Basil Treadwell

 

Sir, I am saddened to see such a distinguished naturalist as Sir Basil fall into the trap, in the previous letter, of referring facetiously to worms. As the past president of the Worm Society of Great Britain (excluding Northern Ireland) I can only reiterate that, as Charles Darwin famously pointed out, we could hardly survive without the lowly and patient worm to make the earth friable and cultivable. But as I know from experience, it is very hard to persuade people of the worm's usefulness – how I shudder whenever I hear the expression "opening a can of worms"! – and I fear I may be casting pearls before swine once again.

Mrs Nora Deedes

 

Sir, Here we go again! Pearls before swine, indeed! The pig is one of the noblest and finest animals known to man, and anyone who says otherwise is a rat!

Mr Douglas May

 

Sir, On behalf of the Rodent Defence League, may I once more somewhat wearily speak up for the maligned rat (not to mention the despised mouse and the ignominious rabbit). The rat is not filthy, as is suggested by James Cagney's immortal line "You dirty rat!" – it is a clean, intelligent, sociable and ingenious animal. How much better it would have been if James Cagney had said something uncontroversial like: "You dirty heel!"

Mrs Thelma Goodwin

 

Sir, As one of the most senior surgeons in Britain, so senior that I have rejected two knighthoods (and accepted one), it is perhaps apt for me to protest against the singling out of the heel as a part of the body to use as an insult. The heel is a little-sung, underrated, very useful part of the body that never attracts disease and seldom fails to function. Leave the heel alone! (Have a go at the spleen, if you like.)

Professor Sir Albert Wrigley

 

Sir, as my name suggests, I am Welsh, and one of the things I cannot abide is the use of the phrase "to welsh on someone". As you may have noticed, this phrase has not been used by anyone in any of these letters, but I thought I would write in and say this anyway. Call me over-sensitive if you like. Everyone else does.

Mrs Dora Williams

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