fingertip search

I've had a couple of requests (from Dennis in May and Marc in June) for coverage of the BrE phrase fingertip search, and more specifically for the AmE equivalent of the term. It's a term that comes up a lot in the news and in one of the UK's great cultural exports, the murder mystery novel, and thus there are some other available discussions of it on the Internet, for example on Language Log and in this discussion forum for translators.

Let's start with the meaning. Fingertip search (or, more rarely, finger-tip search) is a search carried out by people (rather than technology, like a scanning device) for something that probably needs careful attention in order to be noticed. It is most often used to describe, the goings-on at a crime scene, especially a place where a corpse has been found. This leads to the question, is it a search for fingertips, or a search with the fingertips? The common assumption (in our household, at least!) is that it's the latter. This photo from a 2002 BBC story illustrates the point. It's captioned: 'A fingertip search took place in atrocious weather conditions'.

While/Whilst one mostly finds fingertip search in discussions of crime scene investigations, it's not exclusively used in such contexts. For instance, the Language Log post linked above has an example of a fingertip search for newts and other amphibians, as part of a conservation effort. It does, however, connote an official search. For example, you don't typically hear people saying that they conducted a fingertip search of the bedroom carpet for a lost contact lens, and if you do, it's probably meant to be a little humorous.

Finger(-)tip search
is not to be found in the OED at this point, but we shouldn't conclude too quickly that it's a new term. It's rarely explained in the BrE news contexts in which it is printed, which seems to indicate that the writers feel that they can assume BrE speakers' familiarity with the term. Using Google Book Search, I've found an example in Blackwell's Magazine from 1945.
I remember an age-long fingertip search of a vast sweep of recreation- ground ;
I remember finding a mine balanced weirdly and precariously on its nose
That's as much as I'm allowed to see via Google, but note that even back then, the term is used without explanation--so it must have been a somewhat familiar term by then. It also may not be a crime scene, but the scene of a bombing. (We could consider that a crime scene, I guess.)

As for the question of what the AmE equivalent is, I don't think there is a noun phrase that sums up this meaning in the same way. And there doesn't need to be, since the activity is very describable (e.g. the police searched the scene with a fine-tooth[ed] comb) without a specific noun phrase equivalent. While it's convenient, if you need to talk about something a lot, to have a specific lexicali{s/z}ed expression for a particular concept, there are always other possible ways to describe it too.


  1. You could also have "The accident investigators conducted a fingertip search .... "

    The example from Blackwell's Magazine in 1945, possibly describes an area search after a bomb fell during World War II, rather than a crime scene.

  2. Didn't it occur to you that it might mean a search of fingertips? "Show me your fingertip, Moriarty, I wish to search it."

  3. No need for that to occur to me, since the contexts in which the phrase appears usually makes that interpretation impossible, since it's usually a fingertip search of a place. Places don't have fingertips, unless they're people, and the places searched in such sentences ('a vast sweep of recreation ground') are rarely people. (So, e.g., a fingertip search of Moriarty is not the usual kind of context for this expression, though certainly not an impossible context for it.

    And just look at the photo!

    (Of course, I know you're just joshingly giving me a hard time, dearieme. But I usually take the bait, don't I?)

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. I (humorously) thought it was a search for fingertips!

    (Industrial accident?)

  6. In Br.Eng we do use the expression “with a fine toothcomb”, which I feel means being extra pernickety or looking for faults or we refer to “nit- picking”.
    I imagine these terms were derived from the school nit-nurse, who used to inspect the children’s heads for nits (egg or young form of louse). The nurse was withdrawn from schools in the 1950 or 1960 and they should be re-instated, as I understand that lice infestation has almost reached epidemic proportions among school children

  7. I wasn't trying to imply that fine-tooth[ed] comb wasn't used in BrE. Similarly, nit-picking is found in both dialects.

  8. Yes, I agree that there isn't really a direct AmE version of this. Usually the news would say "The police conducted a careful search..." or something similar, maybe indicating forensics experts or the like. I don't think that "Fine toothed comb" would be used that often in a news setting, that seems a little more informal than that for me.

    Although this sort of thing always brings me back to the classic "Comb the Desert" bit in Spaceballs...

  9. I've been told by a scholar expert in such things that "nit-picking" derives from AmE of the American South, particularly amongst African-Americans during slavery days.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)