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Don’t belittle this word

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Written by Stan Carey

If you were told that a word had ‘no chance of becoming English’ and should be ‘abandoned to the incurably vulgar’, you would not guess that the word is belittle. It seems so ordinary and uncontroversial nowadays. But those quotes, from Fitzedward Hall in 1872, reflect real historical antagonism to it. ‘For shame, Mr. Jefferson!’ spluttered an article in the London Review, criticizing the Founding Father for coining it.

Thomas Jefferson first used belittle in 1785, at the tail end of a productive spell for the be- prefix. He used it not in the familiar sense ‘dismiss the value or importance of’, but in the more literal sense ‘reduce in size’. That usage, and the related one ‘cause to appear small’, are now uncommon. Only the most modern sense warrants an entry in Macmillan Dictionary, where it’s defined as: ‘to say or think that someone or something is unimportant or not very good’.

The word’s early unpopularity continued well into the 20th century. H.W. Fowler, in his popular Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), said that only the ‘cause to appear small’ sense ‘may pass uncensored’. He acknowledged that the modern sense had ‘gained considerable currency’, but he belittled it all the same:

It is still felt by many to be an undesirable alien that should not be allowed to supplant the old-established words, of which we have a large supply suitable for various contexts & shades of meaning – disparage, decry, depreciate, make light of, slight, run down, cry down, poohpooh, deride, ridicule, slight, minimize, lower.

The repetition of slight is in the original. To this list of synonyms we can add play down, minimize, downplay, trivialize, understate, downgrade, eclipse, lessen, detract, and overshadow. The 1965 edition of Fowler repeated his prescriptive line, but Robert Burchfield’s radically revised third edition in 1996 finally changed tack, saying it would probably surprise readers to know ‘that the currency and acceptability of the verb belittle in the UK was ever in doubt’.

Fowler’s reluctance to accept belittle because of existing synonyms is a stance I find strange. If he had grown up with belittle but not decry, he would have rejected decry. Knee-jerk dismissal of ‘unnecessary words’ is a kind of lexical neophobia: an aversion to what’s new. If a new word supplants an old one, it’s because we prefer the new one. Or it may just come to occupy its own niche, favoured by some people in some contexts. And what’s wrong with that?

The acceptability of belittle is now such a non-issue that the word has no entry at all in the voluminous usage dictionaries of Merriam-Webster and Bryan Garner, while the Columbia Guide to Standard American English provides the briefest of notes to define it and say that yes, it’s standard. All the anxious commentary trashing it has become a quaint historical footnote – which is worth remembering the next time we feel like belittling a new word.

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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