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What is a figure of speech that describes searching for a problem ...
January 31, 2013 12:22 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a figure of speech that describes searching for a problem in something someone else is doing where there is no apparent issue. Sort of like a "witch hunt", but smaller in scale. Like nitpicking, but with more of the idea of looking for a critical flaw.
posted by roaring beast to Writing & Language (38 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
A solution in search of a problem?
posted by 2bucksplus at 12:27 PM on January 31, 2013


"Spurious objections".
posted by mhoye at 12:27 PM on January 31, 2013


fault-finding?
posted by unknowncommand at 12:30 PM on January 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


Catastrophizing?
posted by mazola at 12:30 PM on January 31, 2013


Micromanaging? Making waves? Creating drama? Poking one's nose into the situation?
posted by Melismata at 12:30 PM on January 31, 2013


messing with success, as in "Don't mess with success"
posted by 2bucksplus at 12:31 PM on January 31, 2013


Making a mountain out of a mole hill.
Playing the devil's advocate.
Being oppositional or contrarian.
posted by Dansaman at 12:37 PM on January 31, 2013


adversarial? socratic? contrarian?
posted by politikitty at 12:39 PM on January 31, 2013


Wild goose chase?
posted by daveliepmann at 12:45 PM on January 31, 2013


I'd probably say they were "determined to find a problem".
posted by echo target at 12:51 PM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


"If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
posted by jcreigh at 12:56 PM on January 31, 2013


kibitzing? micromanaging?
posted by Ausamor at 1:00 PM on January 31, 2013


Kibitzing.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 1:00 PM on January 31, 2013


In Tony Hillerman's 1986 detective novel Skinwalkers, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn muses:

Here might be the motive: this further example of Irma Onesalt in the role of busybody, to use the belagana term for it. His mother would have called her, in Navajo, "one who tells sheep which weed to eat."
posted by feral_goldfish at 1:02 PM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Thirding kibitzing.
posted by orangutan at 1:04 PM on January 31, 2013


I believe you are looking for the term "fishing expedition" which describes the activity of one or more people actively probing for information under the guise of being well intentioned when in reality they are looking for a problem that they haven't found yet.

It's used this way routinely in politics. The investigations into Hilary Clinton's commodities trades were, for example, routinely lambasted as a fishing expedition.
posted by rr at 1:09 PM on January 31, 2013 [9 favorites]


Kibitzing refers specifically to conversational activity occurring at the same time and place as the criticized activity. The prototypical situation is a card game, in which the kibitzer is a talkative observer.

Linguistic anthropologists Elinor Ochs and Carolyn Taylor use 'problematizing' in their work on family dinner table conversations.

I love 'fishing expedition', because it calls attention specifically to the searching aspect.
posted by feral_goldfish at 1:13 PM on January 31, 2013


picking holes
posted by crocomancer at 1:29 PM on January 31, 2013


Fishing expedition is better, but there's also "don't look a gift horse in the mouth," which refers to overly scrutinizing something that is already far more than paid for.
posted by salvia at 1:46 PM on January 31, 2013


When you do this to someone, you are niggling (at) them.
posted by peachfuzz at 1:49 PM on January 31, 2013


Fishing expedition is the closest so far. Thanks everyone! More welcome.
posted by roaring beast at 1:59 PM on January 31, 2013


After looking up fishing expedition, it seem to carry an overtone of searching aimlessly for information, with possible dubious motives. I'm thinking of something with a more clear intent to prove wrong. Like if you wanted to fire someone, so you repeatedly searched their past actions looking for something they would show evidence of wrongdoing that would justify the firing, even if they haven't done anything really wrong.
posted by roaring beast at 2:05 PM on January 31, 2013


It is kinda scapegoating but doesn't have the exact connotations of what you are looking for. Weird, I know EXACTLY what you mean but can't find an appropriate word for it.
posted by saucysault at 2:11 PM on January 31, 2013


Rationalisation is similar too but doesn't have the malicious intent overtone.
posted by saucysault at 2:14 PM on January 31, 2013


The closest thing I can think of is an "inquisition" but I know it's not exactly right. It is frustrating because I also know exactly what you mean, but I'm not sure the precise word exists in the English language.
posted by walla at 2:15 PM on January 31, 2013


Kind of like incriminating...but that's not it.
posted by hannahelastic at 2:22 PM on January 31, 2013


If you want the "looking for dirt with malice" aspect: playing garbologist
posted by rr at 2:32 PM on January 31, 2013


digging up dirt?
posted by dadici at 2:36 PM on January 31, 2013


Borrowing trouble.
posted by Wavelet at 4:02 PM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Building a case against someone, hunting for stones to throw, looking for chinks in their armor.
posted by ottereroticist at 4:28 PM on January 31, 2013


Digging up dirt or yes, fishing trip. I think this definition shows it doesn't have to be aimless:
An open-ended inquiry or investigation, often undertaken on the pretext of a minor or unrelated matter, whose real purpose is to uncover embarrassing or damaging information, as about a political opponent

When it comes to idioms and figures of speech, there is usually no one set definition that people refer to, as long as it gets the point across, which I agree that these do.
posted by bleep at 5:31 PM on January 31, 2013


I remember this vis a vis the Clintons and Whitewater...Someone said the black community sympathized with the Clintons because they (African-Americans) well understood the practice of "starting with the man and looking for the crime," rather than the other way around.
posted by Ollie at 5:40 PM on January 31, 2013


Muckraking?
posted by bricoleur at 7:17 PM on January 31, 2013


In the specific context from your follow-up comment, that would just be an audit, review, or investigation, all assuming you mean for it to be above-board and open to finding no fault. If it's going to keep looking for fault until *something* is found, then that's shadier and many of the idioms in this thread would fit.
posted by pahalial at 7:26 PM on January 31, 2013


Setting up straw men?
posted by melesana at 8:48 PM on January 31, 2013


A cop could use a broken tail light as a "pretext" to stop a car, when he's really hoping to search it for drugs. Or file "trumped-up charges" in order to get a search warrant he couldn't otherwise get. One could look for a "technicality" that's officially a violation, but a trivial one. Having found something, one could then "throw the book" at someone, charging them with every possible violation, and/or seeking the maximum allowable penalty.
posted by Dixon Ticonderoga at 10:20 AM on February 1, 2013


Rather than "digging up dirt", I would say "digging for dirt" does more to emphasize malicious intent unjustified by preliminary evidence.
posted by feral_goldfish at 1:32 PM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


To cavil.
posted by thebrokedown at 10:21 AM on February 2, 2013


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