Q From John McWilliams: I am an engineer and have used the words blivet and nitnoid all my professional life, but I’m not sure if they are real words. To me, a blivet is some small amorphous shape like a blob. A nitnoid is a small mechanical device of little importance as in, ‘that nitnoid keeps the belt tight’. Any help?
A Blivet is by far the better known of the two words and dictionaries of American slang suggest it dates back to American servicemen in World War Two. It is frequently said to be any small, useless, unnecessary or superfluous thing. It looks like a mixture of blip and widget, though your definition suggests that it might instead be from blip plus rivet.
It’s often described as ten pounds of horse manure in a five-pound bag (though the quantities vary between tellers) and the excuse to retell that “explanation” to a naive onlooker is often the reason for using the word. I am told that in the 1950s the term could be used to describe a person who was either self-important and full of himself or grossly overweight, for whom this description was all too apt.
When this piece first appeared, many subscribers mentioned that they knew blivet as the name of an impossible two-pronged trident thingy, otherwise known as the Devil’s pitchfork. It is sometimes said that the name derives from “believe it”, which I don’t. Other subscribers remember blivet as a military term for rubberised bladders that were used by various air forces for holding fuel at temporary locations, usually small airstrips. Once drained, the bags would go flat and be easily stored until required for use elsewhere.
Your other word, nitnoid, is clearly also American slang, though it’s new to me and there’s nothing in any of my books to tell me its origin (the earliest example I’ve found is from 1992, but it clearly must be significantly older). There are references to it online that suggest it can be a niggling small matter of no consequence, or something that’s nit-pickingly frustrating, or a pedantic person intent on squashing the life out of some subject by considering every detail. This suggests a derivation from nit plus the suffix -oid to indicate something of a given nature (plus, to be nitnoid about the matter, an interpolated n to make it easier to say, and perhaps a trace more humorous). Examples include “he has written a book chock full of nitnoid detail”, and “this man is a nitnoid perfectionist”. A rare example in print appeared in the Atlanta Constitution in September 2001: “We need to appreciate every moment we have with each other and just be nicer and not get lost in the nitnoid frustrations of life.” Interestingly, though this is clearly in the same ball park as your example, none of the instances I’ve found have quite the same sense.
It was confidently said by many subscribers to derive from the Thai nit noi, meaning “just a little”, with the suggestion that it was brought back to the USA by servicemen returning from the Vietnam war. I can’t find evidence to directly confirm or deny this one, though the gap between the Vietnam era and the first appearance of the word might count against its being the source.