Frances Armstrong

    Little Learning    

    Littleness and miniaturization                              

   Miniaturist mathematics

   Making in miniature:
      New Projects
Lessons on lessening
"That's the reason they're called lessons," the Gryphon remarked:"because they lessen from day to day."
  This was quite a new idea to Alice . . . .          
(Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland)              
It's also an idea that seems to go against modern concepts of "lifelong learning," though perhaps it fits the case of the scholar who learns more and more about less and less and ends up knowing everything about nothing.  On the other hand, miniaturists devote their energies to making things smaller, which surely is the same thing as lessening them?
Littleness and language
Let's start with a word that you may not have met before, and may never meet again:  the verb


which means to make small, or indeed to diminish.  Isn't that nice, to be able to make a word smaller and yet keep its meaning the same?
Since the word is seldom used, perhaps we (the small but not diminishing group of those who love smallness) should claim the word minish for our own, and make sure it gets lots of positive connotations.  But I rather have my doubts about such a plan.  The "ish" ending sounds a bit strong to me, reminding of "demolish" and perhaps "smash"  and "mush" and "munch" and . . .Well, I just don't think that  minishing could  be a creative act.  "Diminished" certainly  seems to be mainly a negative characteristic.

The word usually used by these enthusiasts is "miniaturizing," but it's long, and hazardous.  Even if you remember to put in the a, and to use a z if you live in North America and an s if you don't, you are probably guilty of thinking the word is connected with "minimum" and "minimal" and not knowing that "minium," meaning "red paint," is the source of the word.

In these notes I will share some of the things I've discovered in dictionaries large and small.

So let's find another word to rescue.  We'll head for the M section of the biggest dictionary in the picture above (Webster's).   We can spend many profitable minutes (look up that last word too) trawling in the "mini" section and trying to separate out the influence of red paint and short skirts and a small car.  Just before "mini" comes "mingy," which is certainly not a word we want to describe  us, whatever its derivation.  "Minion" likewise.  But minikin has some promise, because it appears to be derived partly from the old  word "minnesinger," meaning a singer of love songs.  "Min" in many Germanic languages means "love."

Minify  is another word that took my fancy.  By the way, for anyone whe has been wondering what right we have to mess around with the  meanings of  words, my dictionary specifically mentions that "mini" is frequently used to make nonce compounds.  (You have made nonce words yourself, even if you didn't know you were doing it, any time you have made up a word like "mini-mart" or "mini-crisis.")

So we can appropriate "minify" if we like, and probably no one would care.  But I've found an even better word to play with.  Minuscule is a word that means "little," and that nobody can spell.  They all think it's "miniscule," and the new Oxford dictionary is lenient on the matter.  Blame for the confusion is placed on the better-known "mini-school"  (or mini-skule, if necessary.)  So minuscule is up for grabs (it belongs to the printing trade, where it referred to small letters).

If you remember, I used as a heading for these notes on littleness the words "Little Learning," and I quoted Jonathan Swift's warning that a little learning was a dangerous thing.  "Drink deep," he said.  Well, you can see what happens if you try to take even a small sip from a dictionary.  If you've read this far, you'll know why I'm going to add a subheading: Little Learning: The Minuscule.

Little Learning

Littleness and Miniaturization

Miniaturist mathematics

New Projects
Note on the dictionaries used:
The smallest is the English Dictionary published by David Bryce around 1898.

The Little Lexicon (first published by William Cole in 1825) is pretty, but a little sneaky in that it describes itself as having "more words than are found in the usual Abridgements of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary."  It's not itself one of these abridgements.

Webster's New World Dictionary is not new (1988) and it's not Canadian, but it is red like the others.  (Should dictionaries be red although they aren't often read?)