What's the origin of the phrase "SPLITTING HAIRS"?

A visitor from WebTV asked mrlucky to probe the origin of the term "splitting hairs". This is a subject close to mrlucky’s Jewish heart: the pilpul is a dialectical rational method of studying Jewish oral law as codified in the Talmud. Although the pilpul is a long-standing tradition of Jewish learning, it is oft-defined derogatorily as quibbling, or hair-splitting logic. Read the late Harry Kemelman’s series of Rabbi Small detective novels for some prime examples of pilpulim.

Whoa! mrlucky’s getting a little senile. We were supposed to be talking about the origin of "splitting hairs", not my early life in the Yeshiva.

This phrase,meaning to argue extensively over trifles or fine distinctions, appears in several texts on expressions and cliches. All of them indicate an origin in the 17th century. The 1652 citation in the OED uses the phrase "cut the hair", but the meaning is clearly the same, to wit: "Machiavel cut the hair when he advised, not absolutely to disavow conscience, but to manage it with such a prudent neglect, as is scarce discernible from a tenderness."

Charles Earl Funk writes (in 1948) that "splitting hairs" originally meant "to divide into exactly even amounts, so precisely as to afford no slightest advantage." His book A Hog On Ice And Other Curious Expressions offers no citation in support of this belief. I found no other references to this meaning in any authoritative volume; thus, I discount it.

James Rogers, in the 1985 volume The Dictionary Of Cliches, reminds that in the era in which this cliche was new, the literal splitting of hair was so difficult as to be a waste of time. It is in this spirit of technological crudity that the pointless, cavilling essence of "splitting hairs" was born. In our modern Ginsu Knife, laser surgery world, splitting hairs may be pointless, but hardly difficult.

Or am I just splitting hairs?

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