Such a Wretched Thing To Be Small

I’m wondering what’s coded into our DNA that makes us value large and devalue small. It’s probably the drive to amass resources: more food is better than less food because it will sustain us for a longer period of time. If a little of something makes us happy, a lot of it should make us happier (not always true, but fundamentally reasonable).

The diminutive effect of “little” has been implemented as an insult throughout the formation of our language.  The Superior Person’s Guide to Words suggests using it for this effect even in the middle of an apparent compliment: “Aren’t you the little witling!  We shall all have to be on guard against your little whimsicalities, shan’t we.” The speaker has likened the “witling” (wit, with the diminutive -ling suffix!) to something small and therefore rudimentary, like a child, and complimenting them on their cunning while acknowledging its elementary state.  A simpler form of this would be: “You’re pretty bright for an eight-year-old.”

Misery and insecurity are imparted in the phrase small hours or wee hours of the morning. Lying awake, pensive and drenched in sweat, with nothing to do but stare at the ceiling during the “small hours”—every component of this reflects discomfiture. One has to wonder: what are the “large hours?” Aren’t we a different flavor of miserable when our hours stretch on interminably?

The phrase small beer originally refers to beer that has been watered down. It did happen that a small beer could be ordered at a reduced rate, but it also happened that watering down drinks was an underhanded technique to save a few pennies here and there. Small beer has been expanded in the latter day to encapsulate any inferior beer, a beer so bad it stands to offend the drinker.

Even libel, a very serious charge against which all journalists take precautions, comes from this diminutive pattern. The Latin word for book is liber, and when a tract was printed for no other reason than to defame and insult a person or organization, with little to back it up—clearly a mission of a disgruntled person—this publication was dismissed as a “little book,” or libellus. A little book of little worth, one projects, conceived by a small mind and compelled by a smallness of spirit.

And yet it all turns around when we speak of cute or twee things, or gross injustice, but that’s another matter entirely.

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