For once and for all, let’s stop using the term grammar Nazi.
The Nazis were not just people who got all up in your face about small things. Do I even need to tell you about them? Are you really OK with using Nazi as a synonym for meanie or taskmaster or martinet or pedant?
Sure, we need a term for people who can’t seem to resist being dicks about other people’s grammar. But I don’t think we need to call them grammar genocidal megalomaniacs. There’s a better term, much better, that was drawn to my attention by one of the language gang on Twitter, @mededitor, who tweeted a flow chart made by David Bradley: “A simple flowchart to avoid becoming a grammar numpty.”
Ah, yes, grammar numpty. As @mededitor explained, “‘Numpty’ is a UK pejorative, meaning chowderhead.” It’s actually a fairly new word; it seems to have started showing up in the last 30 years. It’s likely derived from numps, a much older word (around since the time of Shakespeare) also referring to a stupid, silly, foolish, or ineffectual person, and possibly formed from the name Humphrey; numpty is quite possibly modelled on Humpty-Dumpty (which may also come from Humphrey – way to Bogart that name), gaining effect from echoes of numbskull and dumb and the effect of the dull “uh” vowel and the soft nasal consonant. And, for the grammar pickers, an echo of “harrumph.” It can be a noun or an adjective.
I should say that David Bradley (who, by the way, is British) is not the first person to use grammar numpty. I found a tweet from last November, for instance, directed at the Twitter account of a company that sells grammar-checking software (a company that also published an appallingly stupid article supposedly “correcting” “mistakes” in a popular novel series – mainly presenting style choices as rules, and making some truly cack-handed recommendations – so I won’t be naming them); they picked on a headline with what was probably an intentional error for the sake of humour, and @onekind (who is Australian) tweeted at them, “IT’S A JOKE YOU GRAMMAR NUMPTIES”.
Now, admittedly, people who I may want to call grammar numpties (because they’re needlessly prickish about other people’s usage) might well feel inclined to call their targets grammar numpties, because it is somewhat subjective just who is a numpty. Therefore, I do have an alternate available for those who would like one: grammar nudnik.
I like the word nudnik because it’s more specific. It’s not like numpty, which just means that you think the person is obtuse. Nudnik refers to a pest. A person who is boring, a person who buttonholes you and tells you inane details at length, a person who picks at you incessantly. A person who is like slimy celery leaves clinging to your finger. It’s less goofy-sounding than numpty; it has that sharp prick of ik at the end, suitable for dickish behaviour. The u is as in noodle, not as in dump, so it’s more focused and tense (like a lurking version of needy), but at the same time it has the lowest resonances of any vowel (if you want to know more about those resonances, read “The world speaks in harmony”).
Where does nudnik come from? Yiddish. (And I do think I’d rather have a word from Yiddish than one – Nazi – naming the people who murdered millions of Yiddish speakers.) It comes from the verb nudyen ‘bore’ and traces ultimately to Proto-Slavic. Although it has (for us) an echo of rude, it doesn’t automatically connote rudeness, though it allows it. Mainly it just means the sort of person who soon has you thinking, “Will. You. Shut. Up.”
So you have a choice of two. When some twit starts picking at others on small points of grammar that he or she may or may not even be right about, you can call the twit a grammar numpty or a grammar nudnik. And you don’t need to use that other word at all.