16 Little Words and Phrases for Describing Small Amounts
By Mark Peters
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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."
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.