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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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A New App Interprets Sign Language for the Amazon Echo
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The convenience of the Amazon Echo smart speaker only goes so far. Without any sort of visual interface, the voice-activated home assistant isn't very useful for deaf people—Alexa only understands three languages, none of which are American Sign Language. But Fast Company reports that one programmer has invented an ingenious system that allows the Echo to communicate visually.

Abhishek Singh's new artificial intelligence app acts as an interpreter between deaf people and Alexa. For it to work, users must sign at a web cam that's connected to a computer. The app translates the ASL signs from the webcam into text and reads it aloud for Alexa to hear. When Alexa talks back, the app generates a text version of the response for the user to read.

Singh had to teach his system ASL himself by signing various words at his web cam repeatedly. Working within the machine-learning platform Tensorflow, the AI program eventually collected enough data to recognize the meaning of certain gestures automatically.

While Amazon does have two smart home devices with screens—the Echo Show and Echo Spot—for now, Singh's app is one of the best options out there for signers using voice assistants that don't have visual components. He plans to make the code open-source and share his full methodology in order to make it accessible to as many people as possible.

Watch his demo in the video below.

[h/t Fast Company]

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How to Craft the Perfect Comeback, According to Experts
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In a 1997 episode of Seinfeld called “The Comeback,” George Costanza is merrily stuffing himself with free shrimp at a meeting. His coworker mocks him: “Hey, George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.” George stands humiliated as laughter fills the room, his mind searching frantically for the perfect riposte.

It’s only later, on the drive home, that he thinks of the comeback. But the moment has passed.

The common human experience of thinking of the perfect response too late—l’esprit de l’escalier, or "the wit of the staircase"—was identified by French philosopher Denis Diderot when he was so overwhelmed by an argument at a party that he could only think clearly again once he’d gotten to the bottom of the stairs.

We've all been there. Freestyle rappers, improv comedians, and others who rely on witty rejoinders for a living say their jobs make them better equipped to seize the opportunity for clever retorts in everyday life. They use a combination of timing, listening, and gagging their inner critics. Here are their insights for crafting the perfect comeback.

LISTEN TO YOUR OPPONENT’S ARGUMENT.

The next time you’re in a heated conversation, be less focused on what you're about to say and more attentive to what you're actually responding to. When you spend more time considering what your sparring partner is saying, “you’re deferring your response until you’ve fully heard the other person," Jim Tosone, a technology executive-turned-improv coach who developed the Improv Means Business program, tells Mental Floss. Your retorts may be more accurate, and therefore more successful, when you’re fully engaged with the other person’s thoughts.

DON’T THINK TOO MUCH.

According to Belina Raffy, the CEO of the Berlin-based company Maffick—which also uses improv skills in business—not overthinking the situation is key. “You’re taking yourself out of unfolding reality if you think too much,” she tells Mental Floss. It’s important to be in the moment, and to deliver your response to reflect that moment.

TRAIN THAT SPONTANEOUS MENTAL MUSCLE.

History’s most skilled comeback artists stored witticisms away for later use, and were able to pull them out of their memory at the critical time.

Winston Churchill was known for his comebacks, but Tim Riley, director and chief curator at the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, tells Mental Floss that many of his burns were borrowed. One of his most famous lines was in response to politician Bessie Braddock’s jab, “Sir, you are drunk.” The prime minister replied, “And you, Bessie, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly.”

Riley says this line was copied from comic W.C. Fields. Nevertheless, it took quick thinking to remember and reshape the quote in the moment, which is why Churchill was thought of as a master of timing. “It was an off-the-cuff recall of something he had synthesized, composed earlier, and that he was waiting to perform,” Riley says.

But in some situations, the retort must be created entirely in the moment. Training for spontaneity on stage also helps with being quicker-witted in social situations, New York City battle rap emcee iLLspokinn tells Mental Floss. It’s like working a spontaneous muscle that builds with each flex, so, you’re incrementally better each time at seizing that witty opportunity.

MUZZLE YOUR INNER CRITIC.

Anyone who has been in the audience for an improv show has seen how rapidly performers respond to every situation. Improv teaches you to release your inhibitions and say what drops into your mind: “It’s about letting go of the need to judge ourselves,” Raffy explains.

One way to break free of your internal editor might be to imagine yourself on stage. In improv theater, the funniest responses occur in the spur of the moment, says Douglas Widick, an improv performer who trained with Chicago’s Upright Citizens Brigade. By not letting one’s conscience be one’s guide, actors can give into their “deepest fantasies” and say the things they wouldn’t say in real life.

IF YOU HAVE AN EXTRA SECOND, HONE YOUR ZINGER.

The German version of Diderot’s term is Treppenwitz, also meaning the wit of the stairs. But the German phrase has evolved to mean the opposite: Something said that, in retrospect, was a bad joke. When squaring up to your rival, the high you get from spearing your opponent with a deadly verbal thrust can be shadowed by its opposite, the low that comes from blurting out a lame response that lands like a lead balloon.

That's a feeling that freestyle rapper Lex Rush hopes to avoid. “In the heat of the battle, you just go for it,” she tells Mental Floss. She likens the fight to a “stream of consciousness” that unfolds into the mic, which leaves her with little control over what she’s projecting into the crowd.

It may help to mull over your retort if you have a few extra seconds—especially if you’re the extroverted type. “Introverts may walk out of a meeting thinking, ‘Why didn’t I say that?’ while extroverts think, ‘Why did I say that?’” Tosone, the improv coach, says. Thinking before you speak, even just briefly, will help you deploy a successful comeback.

And if it doesn’t go your way, iLLspokinn advises brushing off your missed opportunity rather than dwelling on your error: “It can be toxic to hold onto it."

THROW DIGITAL SHADE ACCORDING TO THE SAME RULES—BUT BE QUICK ABOUT IT.

Texting and social media, as opposed to face-to-face contact, give you a few extra minutes to think through your responses. That could improve the quality of your zinger. “We’re still human beings, even on screens. And we prefer something that is well-stated and has a fun energy and wit about it," Scott Talan, a social media expert at American University, tells Mental Floss.

But don't wait too long: Replies lose their punch after a day or so. “Speed is integral to wit, whether in real life or screen life,” Talan says. “If you’re trying to be witty and have that reputation, then speed will help you."

Some companies have excelled in deploying savage social media burns as marketing strategies, winning viral retweets and recognition. The Wendy’s Twitter account has become so well known for its sassy replies that users often provoke it. “Bet you won’t follow me @Wendys,” a user challenged. “You won that bet,” Wendy’s immediately shot back.

George Costanza learns that lesson when he uses his rehearsed comeback at the next meeting. After his colleague repeats his shrimp insult, George stands and proudly announces, “Oh yeah? Well, the jerk store called, and they’re running out of you!”

There’s silence—until his nemesis comes back with a lethal move: “What’s the difference? You’re their all-time best-seller.”

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