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Words related to size, part two: tiny

Now that we know how untrivial the origin of small, little ~ leetle, and wee is (see the post for June 20, 2024), we are fully prepared to examine the puzzling history of tiny. Little pitchers have long ears, and inconspicuous words may have a nearly impenetrable etymology. It is hard to believe how much trouble the adjective tiny has given researchers.

Little pitchers have long ears.
Image by Alena Darmel via Pexels. Public domain.

This word surfaced in texts around the year 1600. Shakespeare (1564-1616) knew it (he always kept his ears open to the latest street talk), but his contemporary John Minsheu (1560-1627), who brought out the first etymological dictionary of English in 1627, may not have heard the new-fangled adjective. In any case, he did not include it in his work. All the later dictionaries featured tiny and even offered hypotheses of its origin in short (even tiny) statements, without citing any arguments. A serious discussion began with Walter W. Skeat, who kept returning to this word and in 1900 decided that he had at last solved the riddle. Nine years later, Ernest Weekley challenged his solution. Some sources side with him, but most say: “Origin unknown/uncertain.” An admission of ignorance is preferable to persistence in one’s folly. Still, one watches a long way from a wilted garden to a complete desert with sadness (sorry for speaking in metaphors).

These are the “unknowns.” Is tiny native or borrowed? Regardless of the answer, what is the root of tiny (-y looks like a suffix)? Tiny was not slang, but it emerged as a colloquialism. Though such etymological “lightweights” are always hard to trace to their sources, we would still like to find out under what circumstances the word was coined. Here is the summary in The Century Dictionary, published about a hundred and twenty years ago, long before the appearance of the fascicle with tiny in the OED (that is, not later than 1924; the date for the entire volume is 1926). Tiny, we read, competed with teeny, tinny, and tyny. The phrase little tine ~ tyne “a little bit” has been recorded, but the origin of this tyne is undetermined. This is all.

Our oldest dictionaries tried to guess which foreign word might be the source of tiny. Danish tynd “thin” has been cited with some regularity. As I keep repeating, when we pose borrowing from another language, we are expected to show the nature of the contact (who borrowed the word, where, and for what reason?). Indeed, why should English speakers have suddenly noticed a Danish adjective around 1600, garbled it, and turned it into a common English one? In 1924, W. de Vries, a Dutch philologist, pointed out that on hearing Dutch een litteltijn “a very little thing” (with ij pronounced like English ee), teen would emerge, appear in spelling as tine ~ tyny, and be pronounced accordingly. (In Dutch, littel is a variant of luttel.) Dutch is closer to English than Danish. Yet this is an unlikely scenario.

Here is Tiny Tim from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol in the early part of the story.
Image by Jessie Willcox Smith via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

English etymons of tiny have also been suggested. The word teen “the tooth or spike of a fork or harrow” is close by, and so is the obsolete teen “affliction, vexation, malice, grief.” Neither looks like a promising source of tiny, especially because we are interested in tiny, rather than teeny. Teeny lad “peevish youngster” (Lancashire) may perhaps go back to teen “vexation,” but, to repeat, we need tiny. Several other conjectures share the same flaw: they tend to explain teeny and stop there. The ghost of Middle English Tineman “small official” was laid by the OED once and for all: this word did not exist. At present, tiny is cautiously believed to be of French origin, though most sources say: “Origin unknown.”

As noted, in 1900, Skeat published an article about the history of tiny. These were his main points. Tiny occasionally (seldom!) appeared in the form tine (so, for example, in Shakespeare). It emerged as a noun (!), preceded by little, as in a little tine boy, and this tine was dissyllabic (in Skeat’s spelling tinè), like tiny. However, the adjective tiny ~ tyne ~ tine occurred too and, when monosyllabic, rhymed with fine. Today, we say tiny, but tinee would have been the form to expect. A little tine meant “a little bit.” The use of bit (a bit bread, a bit paper, and so on) provides a good parallel. The OED cites similar instances of bit from Robert Burns and Walter Scott. The suffix –ee (as in tinee) occurs only in French words (committee, guarantee, and so forth). Consequently, tiny is also French. Skeat bent over backwards, trying to find a proper French etymon, and cited tinee “the content of a vessel called tine.”

The word he unearthed fits the context so badly that he needed a long paragraph to justify it. Earnest Weekley also believed that tiny was of Romance origin but derived it from French tantin, tantinet “ever so little.” He continued: “Transition from sense of small quantity to that of small size is like that of Sc[ottish] the bit laddie… But if the etymology I propose for wee is correct, tiny may rather be connected with teen.” As we remember, teen “affliction” figured in the search for the origin of tiny before Weekley, and in the previous post, I mentioned Weekley’s derivation of wee from woe. At the end of his career, Skeat hesitatingly accepted Weekley’s suggestion.

My problem is that I don’t understand why tiny, a colloquial word for “little,” should have been borrowed (or rather derived!) from French around the year 1600. Puny, which was recorded about fifty years later than tiny, is indeed a loan from French, but this word was a term meaning “a junior pupil.” Here, I would like to mention an unnoticed detail. In the first edition of his dictionary, Skeat wrote curtly: “Not imitative.” Consequently, such an idea had occurred to him! Indeed, tiny does not refer to sound, but Skeat may have remembered tintinnabulation “a ringing or tinkling sound” from Latin tintinnabulum “small tinkling bell” or English tingle and tinkle. The syllable tin is an ideal basis for all kinds of funny words. Such is the name of Tintin, the hero of the famous comics. Such is Japanese tintin “penis” (slang) and probably many more similar words in the languages of the world.

Teeny is believed to be an expressive variant of tiny. Four centuries ago, tiny was probably also expressive. I suspect that both teeny and the much earlier tiny belong with eena-meena and their likes—indeed, not necessarily imitative, but expressive words, used by or about children. People probably called little children tintin or something like it, and tine, with several variants, sprang up. Don’t we call little children tiny tots? By the way, tot, which sounds like quite a few words in the languages of the world, is, alas, “of unknown origin” too. Think of tit, tat, tut, teeter, totter…

A tot lot of undisputed origin.
Image by Jlbirman1 via Wikimedia Commons. CC By-SA 3.0.

In one of my very old posts, I recalled a tale about a little girl who asked her mother how street cars go. The woman gave her a detailed explanation about electricity, motors, and the rest. The girl listened and then said: “No, this is not how they go.” “And how?” wondered the mother. The girl replied “Ding-dong.” I am afraid to return to the days of Plato’s etymology, but I suspect that tiny is one of such dingdong words in English. This conjecture cannot be supported by any facts or arguments. Hence the result: “TINY: origin unknown.”

Featured image by Danielle Scott, via Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Recent Comments

  1. Huijun Suo

    Your guess is well founded. The syllable tin- is a universal sound imitation for tininess. In Chinese there is a character 丁 ding1. Its oldest forms on tortoise shells (Jiaguwen) and bronze wares (Jinwen) dated 3000+ years ago are like teeth. 一丁点儿 means just a little bit. One of its composites, 钉 (丁 plus 金 metal),means nail, tack, bolt and the like. Another is 叮 (丁 plus 口 mouth), imitates the sound of bell rings, or the sting of mosquitos with their mouthparts. On the other hand, this also tallies well with a traditional view about the origin of tiny, that is, it is related to tine meaning fork tooth or deer horn. German Winkel, a small corner, may also has something to do with English periwinkle the snail.

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