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Etymological small fry: some words for “size”

Even the best-explained words denoting size are partly problematic, but at least their etymology does not always look like a series of insoluble riddles. For instance, small has cognates all over the Germanicspeaking world, and we know that the word was once mainly applied to small cattle. Such is the Icelandic noun (!) smali. Elsewhere, we find the familiar adjective meaning “thin,” “slender,” and “narrow” (such are, for example, German schmal “narrow,” as well as Danish and Swedish smal “narrow, thin”). Even the ties of small with a few non-Germanic forms are almost certain. In this blog, I have often referred to the enigmatic prefix s-, known as s-mobile, or movable s. Like the wind, this prefix “blowth where it listeth” and appears in front of many roots for no obvious reason. (A classic and trodden to death example is English steer “young ox” versus Latin taurus.) That is why when we come across Russian mal “small,” we have some reason to believe that it is related to English small. Classical Greek mēlon means “sheep,” just like Icelandic smali (small cattle!), and here too, we should probably yield to the temptation to connect them.

If the s-less forms are indeed related to small, then Latin malus (recognizable from English malaise, malcontent, malfeasance, and other borrowed Romance words of this type) and Greek mēleos “vain, useless, unhappy” (thus, not only mēlon “sheep”!) belong here too, but this Greek connection is less secure. Unfortunately, a list of related forms is not an etymology, because we want to know why a certain root means what it does. Yet we can seldom go beyond the same well-worn suggestions: sound imitation and sound symbolism. Perhaps such words as Russian molot’ “to grind” (stress again on the second syllable) and Latin molere (from whose root we have molar and less certainly emolument) are indeed sound-imitative (mol-mol-mol), but this is at best intelligent guessing. In any case, the development of meaning in small (as far as Germanic is concerned) was from some collective noun (a flock of small animals) to an abstract adjective. Adjectives often seem to be a result of afterthought.

The origin of all our smallness
Image by Krzysztof Kowalik via Unsplash. Public domain.

In dealing with other English words for “small,” we never have as much reliable information as in the history of small. For instance, the origin of little has given word historians endless trouble. The adjective is old, and its root must have been lut-, with either a short or a long vowel. Like small, little was a word known over a large territory. The Old English adjective had a short vowel, but in both Old Icelandic lítill and in Gothic leitils, the vowel was long. The difference between the vowels baffled historical linguists so much that the author of the recent German etymological dictionary declared (at lützel “little”): “Until this discrepancy has been clarified, the problem of origins will remain unsolved.”

It is always dangerous to swim against the current (see the image at the header!), but the problem may be less formidable than it seems. Words denoting size are often emotional. Over five hundred years ago, the English adjective leetle turned up in a book for the first time. Leetle is usually labeled as a vulgar pronunciation of little. But it is not really vulgar: it is emphatic or playful. Leetle means “very, very little.” Speech habits hardly change over time. Old Germanic, it seems, had several variants of the word that interests us here, one of them (childish or facetious) might sound approximately like leetle. Nursery words tend to penetrate the language of adults and lose their emotional coloring. A similar hypothesis concerning the long vowel in Icelandic and Gothic was offered exactly a hundred years ago and is always mentioned in detailed etymological dictionaries by way of afterthought and without discussion. It makes a lot of sense.

To show how wayward the path of words for “small” is, I may also cite English clean. Its exact Dutch and German cognates are kleen and klein “small, little” (not “free form dirt”!). The sense of the English adjective is original, as evidenced by its cognates in older German, in which the adjective meant “pure; delicate; neat; puny.” Such lines are easily crossed. Even in Modern English, the phrase delicate hands refers to hands beautifully shaped and small. Another example of a more or less the same type is English slight. Since slight means (among other things) “inconsiderable,” it does not come as a surprise that it may mean “not worthy of praise” (compare the verb: “to slight someone”), and lo and behold: German schlecht means “bad.”

In a different corner of the English vocabulary, we find the word wee. No Germanic or Indo-European ties here: just plain English. Not everybody may realize that some familiar poems from Mother Goose have well-known authors and were composed “the day before yesterday.” “Wee Willie Winkie” by William Miller (yes, William!) appeared in 1841. Wee is an old word. It emerged as a noun in the phrase a little wee “a little bit, a short time.”

This is William Miller, 1810-1872, the man who composed the poem “Wee Willie Winkie.”
Image 1 by Kim Traynor via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0. Image 2 by Cleo Sara, Library of Congress via Picryl. No known copyright restrictions.

This is what Walter W. Skeat wrote about wee: “I have little hesitation in assuming the Old Northern English we, or wey, or wei, ‘a way, space’, to be the same as Middle English wei ‘a way’, also a distance, Modern English way. Cf. Northern English way-bit, also wee-bit ‘a small space’.” Perhaps he was right, but even Skeat should not have said “I have little hesitation,” because hesitation is the corner stone of etymological research. (In the latest edition of his Concise Etymological Dictionary, he did not include weeny.)

Unlike Skeat, the editors of the OED connected wee with the word weigh. A little wee thing was supposed to mean “a thing that weighed little.” This derivation sounds more realistic than Skeat’s. Then there is weeny, used mainly in the phrase teeny-weeny. Apparently, weeny is wee with a suffix –ny, as in tiny ~ teeny. Weeny turned up as slang in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. This funny word looks like German wenig “little, a little,” but the two have nothing in common: the similarity is fortuitous and deceptive.

This is not the origin of the phrase small fry!
Image by Dzenina Lukac via Pexels.

Now for desert, small fry. Fry in this idiom means “offspring; spawn of fishes; young fish”; hence “an insignificant person” and “all kinds of insignificant things.” French fries have nothing fishy about them. The word fry in small fry is of Germanic origin, even though the phrase turned up in thirteenth-century AngloLatin, that is, in the form of Latin used in medieval England.

Above, I have mentioned tiny, a late sixteenth-century word. Its etymology deserve a special page.

To be continued.

P.S. In my previous post, I discussed sw-words (swaying). Add swank and swanky to them.

Featured image by David Boca via Unsplash. Public domain.

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