Lessons in Language: Fine Toothcombs and Fine-toothed Combs

fine tooth combYou know what surprised the merry hell out of me when I googled in preparation for this language rant?

There is indeed such a thing as a ‘toothcomb’.  A toothcomb refers to a dental feature in some mammals where a row of long, thin teeth mimic the teeth of a comb, and are used by the mammal in question for grooming. Lemurs have them. So do some antelopes. I know this is true because Wikipedia told me so.

Do you know what mammalian dental configurations called toothcombs are not used for? Describing how people search in detail for something. No, you do not search through records with a fine toothcomb. I don’t care how fine that dental work is, it’s not used for searching for detail.

For that, you need a fine-toothed comb.

Yeah, I know I should probably learn to breathe deeply from my diaphragm and just let things go, but this one, whenever I see it, makes my teeth hurt. My regular ol’ human teeth, which I do not use for grooming.

You see, the marvellous agility of the English language already defines ‘to comb’ as, among other things, to perform a thorough search. It has always seemed to me such a small and eminently logical step that one would search in depth with a fine-toothed comb (or fine-tooth comb, since ‘fine-tooth’ will do as well as ‘fine-toothed’ for an adjective).

Doesn’t it make sense? To, you know, search, more thoroughly, with a comb that has finer teeth than the average, to separate minutiae of data or material? Doesn’t it? Is it really just me?

So, perhaps, for the sake of my hurting teeth, if not for the eloquence and logic of language, please do away with going through evidence with a toothcomb. Your evidence does not need grooming. Employ a fine-toothed comb in your search for unassailable facts. I’ll thank you personally. Possibly with chocolate.

Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.