Splitting Hairs

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Splitting hairs or 'to split hairs' is an idiom which has been in use since at least Shakespeare's time, who used the idiom frequently. Versions of the expression have existed since the 16th century.

Meaning of Splitting Hairs

To split hairs means to argue about very trivial differences or unimportant details. When someone is splitting hairs, their arguments are pointless and frivolous. Sometimes splitting hairs is much the same as being pedantic.

Usage

Dennis was late coming home that night. Brenda, upset that he had not called, asked what had taken him so long. "I just decided to take a little drive," he said. "A little drive? What, did you get lost?" replied Brenda. "Well," said, Dennis, I didn't know where I was but I wasn't really lost."

"Oh, now you're just splitting hairs," said Brenda.

Origin

The exact origin of the expression 'splitting hairs' is unknown. Other versions existed during the 16th and 17th centuries, such as 'to cut a hair' and 'it's hard to split the hair.' 1

The origin may well be more philosophical than a comment on pedantry, perhaps alluding to dividing that which cannot be divided. It would be very difficult to actually split a hair, and there would be no point in doing so.

Sources
1. Ashcroft, Brian. Jargonaut Express: Essential Idioms for the Astute Business Speaker. N.p.: Lulu
Services, 2014.

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