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Fine Tooth Comb

You often hear it; "They searched the whole place with a fine toothcomb", or "Even after going through all the stuff with a fine toothcomb the evidence still wasn't found" etc. But, has anyone stopped to ask, What IS a FINE TOOTH-COMB?! Rather like "every which way but loose" it seems ok at first, but on closer inspection doesn't really make any sense. Even though there exists such a thing as a hair brush and a comb and a tooth brush, so there might be such a thing as a tooth-comb, of which the higher grade ones would be of the type "fine toothcomb", it really doesn't work, as there is no such thing as a fine tooth-comb. What the term really means is a FINE-TOOTH COMB, ie a comb on which the teeth are fine. This makes sense as it would be a comb which would have very narrow slits, thus preventing any objects of significant size from slipping through. However, you still hear people say it "fine toothcomb", when it should be "fine-tooth comb"!

Similarly, camel hairbrush, or camel-hair brush, was an old variant of this. Also, "they painted round the clock"... I have actually seen clocks hung on walls, behind which new paint has been refrained from being applied because the painters failed to notice the clocks were only hung on nails.

Steve writes:

With regards to your fine-tooth comb misconception, where you state it makes more sense to say a fine-tooth comb, I would like to mention that just because the teeth are fine does not necessarily mean they are in closer proximity to each other and therefore being fine would actually cause more to 'slip through the net' as it were. Although I may just be being pedantic.

...Which of course is true. However, I'd say that the gaps are what come first, and the teeth are a secondary consideration. Here's my reply...

Hi Steve,

Yes, that's a good point and I might add it to the page if that's ok by you. You're right that from an absolute viewpoint, it would indeed be possible for someone to construct a comb which had fine teeth but with huge gaps inbetween. However the whole situation is in some way analogous to the fact that downhill skiers are faster than free-fall skydivers. It's to do with the actual intention or aim of the activity. When someone is designing what's in effect a fine-gapped comb, what comes first is the idea of having narrow gaps to filter out small objects. The consequence of this and other engineering constraints is the fine teeth. As the teeth are a material item whereas the gaps are non-physical, even though it's the gaps that are the "active ingredient" in the device, the combs were presumably named "fine-tooth combs". It's only later that the expression has somehow become a strangely warped colloquialism as per a camel hair brush.



Many strange misconceptions at www.zyra.org.uk/miscon.htm

And now I guess I ought to explain why it is that down-hill skiers are faster than free-fall skydivers. Maybe on some new issue of this site!

It's another good point that it would be "fine toothed comb" in modern terminology, but it might easily be "fine tooth comb" in the old form of the language, in the same kind of way in which words such as "remembrance" and "disastrous" have a slightly different spelling from that which is intuitive.

Nit-picking can also be literal as well as metaphorical, and a fine tooth comb can be used for removal of NITS from the hair, especially effective when backed up by some stuff such as Nitmix which helps to get rid of the lice and to keep them away.

There's also a LICE KILLING system that gets rid of lice from the hair using a fine tooth comb and some clever stuff. See Lice Guard