The Friday Fillip: Peevishness

I have pet peeves, though why I keep them as pets I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps we all need bits of special grit that irritate us usefully about unimportant things, opening small vents for some the pressure that builds up thanks to civilization so that our lids don’t blow right off — rather in the way that humour might be seen as a relatively safe form of aggression. I think of this as the snuff theory of peevishness: carry your irritants in a pouch with you at all times; administer a dose when tension rises too high; release the stress in a small outburst; and all the while stay oblivious of the real reason for the ritual.

It doesn’t do to be mock peevish, though. You can’t fake it. You have actually to feel your brow crease and grow tight, feel expressions like “Tcha!” or “I tell you, Martha—!” begin to form behind your lips. You may in fact make a tsk noise and will be quite likely to shake your head briskly in a dismissive way, as though you were trying to expel the irritating thought or sight. Of course, Martha (or Fred or whoever . . . ) knows better: expulsion ain’t the aim: this is peeve #22a about to arrive in the station, whistle blowing, bell clanging, steam issuing from pistons that simultaneously drive and brake.

via xkcd


It may well be, for example, that you get peevish about people who don’t come right to the point. The sideways ambling, the circumlocution — the T. Shandy shuffle — gets your goat and pulls its beard. That meandering happens not to be a peeve I have, but I can see how going round the houses might irritate you. The funny thing is that when I come to look squarely into the menagerie where I keep my own pet peeves, I have difficulty identifying any with precision, and most of what I can make out looks like nothing more serious than a herd of minor and pleasantly fuzzy gripes.

“Peevish,” like a lot of good words, has uncertain origins. We see it used in the early 1500s, though what it meant then exactly isn’t clear. The OED suggests Latin perversus as one source and Latin expavidus, having to do with the shy or startled behaviour of stray animals, as another (both via French, of course). Both seem right to me, if we’re talking about pet peeves.

Ok, I thought of one: when people eat on the subway — or do their makeup on the subway. There’s no point in going on about it, because it’s my pet. I mean, I could get upset about people who block the subway doors or people who don’t give more deserving others their seats or people who interfere with you with their backpacks or loud, leaky earbuds . . . But I don’t. These solecisms I accept with stoic calm. (Old Marcus Au. and I have been tight for some time now.) But munch a bunch of Fritos and watch my dander, hackles and gorge rise.

Um, and I hate it when someone says “Feb-you-ary,” as though it’s too hard for a Canadian to pronounce the word “brew.” (And don’t get me going on “ar-tic” . . . ) And then there’s the latest fad for sentences with the structure “x can’t help but y,” when anyone who pays attention to language would know that “help” and “but” do the same work, and what you want is either “x can’t but y” — which only English novelists say, granted — and “x can’t help y-ing”. And what is with coyly avoiding “died” with pap like “passed away”? And, holy mackerel, waiters who scoop up your companion’s plate before you’ve finished eating should be sent back to waiting school — or sent in the first place, more likely. And people who let free-riding drivers cut into line, and supermarkets that bundle and shrink-wrap their veg, and using a gavel in Canadian media to represent law, and —

Yes. Well. I’m comforted by the certainty that few of us are peeve-free. And, I suppose, also by the realization that I have only a certain herd size for my pet peeves, regularly letting worn-out beefs (beeves?) go to pasture to make room for the new.

Just in case you’re a few peeves short of a pack, I’ll close with a reference to a nice long list on And I invite you to chime in here with your own pet(ty) peeves. I know you’ve got ’em, and people who have but don’t share . . . Don’t get me started.

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