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16 Little Words and Phrases for Describing Small Amounts

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Language ain’t math. When we’re looking to describe an amount that’s teensy-weensy, the words aren’t precise, but they are folksy and charming. Some are regional. Many of these 16 examples referred to a specific small thing or person before broadening their definitions through popular use, but they’re all helpful when dealing with anything itty-bitty.

1. scintilla

Back in the 1600s, this scintillating word referred to a spark—a tiny bit of fire. Soon it was being used to describe little things that aren’t fire hazards, as seen in Oxford English Dictionary examples of a “scintilla of misunderstanding” (1674) and “a scintilla of vvidence” (1734). What a beautiful-sounding word. It sounds so much classier than “almost diddly-squat.”

2. dripple

The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) records this Pennsylvania variation of drip—another smallish word. I reckon dripples are equivalent to drips and drabs.

3. whit

The origin of this word isn’t certain. It might be an alteration of white, originally meaning "a little white spot." It could be a variation of wight, which has referred to many creatures, including small ones. But whatever the origin, since the mid 1400s people have been talking about whits, usually using them in a negative sense, as in “I don’t care a whit for peas.” For some reason, few people want to brag about their whit collection.

4. tad

Before a tad was a small amount, it was a small kid, especially a boy. A 1928 use by Sinclair Lewis would sound odd today: “One of the bell-boys at the hotel, cute little tad, knew the town like a book.”

5. enough to swear by

This not-so-concise phrase turns up in some 1884 nautical fiction by William Lancaster: “The two ships touched with a shock which was barely perceptible, just enough in fact to ‘swear by,’ as the gunner remarked.” Enough to swear by is, to use two similar terms, a pennyworth or pin’s worth.

6. fractionlet

A fraction is small. A fractionlet is really small. The diminutive suffix –let is a proven way of making up words for tiny things. Another example is scraplet, which is likely the kind of scrap that would satisfy few dogs, teacup mini-poodles excepted.

7. smitch

This word might be related to smit, which the OED spots as a rarely used word for a little bit in the 1300s and 1400s. Smitch isn’t common, but it’s not dead either, as a recent Variety article pulled it off the lexical shelf, mentioning “a curvilinear contemporary high above Beverly Hills up for grabs at just a smitch under $15 million.”

8. and 9. smidge and smidgeon

It seems pretty likely that smitch begat smidge and smidgeon/smidgen/smidgin, which sound very similar and have achieved greater success. The spelling in the OED’s first example, from 1845, makes the connection pretty clear: “They wouldn't have left a smitchin o' honey.”

10. tittle

This word, which appropriately rhymes with little, started as a tiny mark made while writing, such as an accent mark or the dot over a lowercase i. From there it came to mean any little written mark, then any little anything. There’s also the expression "to a tittle," which means "to the letter."

11. jot

This common word has the same original meaning as tittle, and the two words were often found together in the expression "jot or tittle." This 1657 line by George Thornley promises to be honest down to the nanometer: “I swear I will not lie a jott.”

12. toosh

DARE has a few examples of this term in use, including a monetary one from 2005: “If the company was founded by Ken Lay it may cost a toosh more than one founded by Alan Greenspan.” Toosh might be a variation of touch.

13. iota

I thought this word came from math, but as usual, my thoughts were as accurate as Wikipedia. Its original meaning was the Greek equivalent of the smallest letter, I. As with other words, a specific tiny meaning led to general use for tiny things. In 1786, U.S. President John Adams once used the word quite forcefully, threatening to “demand, in a tone that could not be resisted, the punctual fulfillment of every iota of the treaty on the part of Britain.”

14. tidge

Tidge might be the love child of tad and smidge. It's also reminiscent of a British word for a small penis: tadger, which Keith Richards used in his autobiography, Life to describe Mick Jagger’s reportedly diminutive assets.

15. thought

You wouldn’t think a word like thought would have many meanings, but you’d think wrong: it can mean a tiny amount, probably because of the immaterial nature of thoughts themselves. In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare wrote, “I like the new tire within excellently, if the haire were a thought browner.”

16. hoot

Hoot first meant a shout or sound, just as it still does. As Green’s Dictionary of Slang records, this word is easily amplified with the expression "give a hoot in hell." And if you really don’t care, you "don’t give two hoots in hell." To not give three hoots in hell would set a new record for apathy, if anyone cared enough to record it.

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ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Big Questions
Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
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ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

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Using Words Like 'Really' A Lot Could Mean You're Really Stressed
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Are you feeling really exhausted? Or have you noticed that it's incredibly hot out today?

If you recognize the adverbs above as appearing frequently in your own speech, it could be a sign that you're stressed. At least, those are the findings in a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As Nature reports, researchers found that peppering our speech with "function words" is a pretty accurate indicator of our anxiety levels.

Function words differ from verbs and nouns in that they don't mean much on their own and mostly serve to clarify the words around them. Included in this group are pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives. A team of American researchers suspected that people use these words more frequently when they're stressed, so to test their hypothesis, they hooked up recording devices to 143 volunteers.

After transcribing and analyzing audio clips recorded periodically over the course of two days, the researchers compared subjects' speech patterns to the gene expressions of certain white blood cells in their bodies that are susceptible to stress. They found that people exhibiting the biological symptoms of stress talked less overall, but when they did speak up they were more likely to use words like really and incredibly.

They also preferred the pronouns me and mine over them and their, possibly indicating their self-absorbed world view when under pressure. The appearance of these trends predicted stress in the volunteers' genes more accurately than their own self-assessments. As study co-author Matthias Mehl told Nature, this could be a reason for doctors to "listen beyond the content" of the symptoms their patients report and pay greater attention "to the way it is expressed" in the future.

One reason function words are such a great indicator of stress is that we often insert them into our sentences unconsciously, while our choice of words like nouns and verbs is more deliberate. Anxiety isn't the only thing that influences our speech without us realizing it. Hearing ideas we agree with also has a way of shaping our syntax.

[h/t Nature]


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