For an example of my own way of making things smaller and smaller, and a free project, click here.
Frances Armstrong

Littleness and language

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Jan.
2006
The challenge of making things smaller and smaller is what drives some miniaturists, though others find the idea of infinite smallness depressing.   Swift was writing at a time when the microscope and telescope were becoming available to ordinary people, and readers may have taken him literally, but now we know that though "smaller things" no doubt do live on fleas, they would have their own shape and structure, and wouldn't simply be tiny fleas.
For an example of my own way of making things smaller and smaller, and a free project, click here.
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Perhaps the idea of a flea circus was first sparked by Swift's words. 
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Littleness and miniaturization
In this section I'll try to collect together some of the remarks and theories that have been offered on this subject.  People who are interested in small things know that not everything that is tiny is delightful, and they may even ponder the possibility that a miniature could be enormous.

In the pages of this new section of my website I have pointed to the idea that the best miniatures are a condensation of essential features, and to the fascination and horror of things that are infinitely small.  Often these are also infinitely numerous.

Here is a more light-hearted look at the infinitely small.
Inventing littleness
Although I have always been fascinated by tiny things, it was only while I was writing a book on Charles Dickens that I began to look hard at a kind of littleness that Dickens may seem to have invented.  It is quite explicit even in an early story, which features a Mrs Chirrup, "a condensation of all the domestic virtues," "a pocket edition of the young man's best companion,--a little woman at a very high pressure, with an amazing quantity of goodness and usefulness in an exceedlingly small space."

In his last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend, Dickens introduces a very similar type of woman, but one who is aware of what her littleness means, and knows how to use it.  Miss Peecher, a schoolmistress, is  described as "a little pincushion, a little housewife, a little book, a little workbox, a little set of tables and weights and measures, and a little woman, all in one." (Modern readers should note that in this context a "housewife" is a  small handy set of sewing equipment, not a person.)

Miss Peecher takes pride in her ability to "write a little essay on any subject,, exactly a slate long, beginning at the left-hand top of one side and ending at the right-hand bottom of the other, and t he essay should be strictly according to rule."  But Miss Peecher knows what she is doing.  She is in love with a violent man who loves someone else, and who will soon be seen as a murderer, and what the schoolmistress is writing so tidily on her slate are fantasies about this man.  We discover a whole set of techniques with which she has barricaded herself against the person she loves.

Dickens was the creator of Little Dorrit, a novel named after its heroine, and Tiny Tim of A Christmas Carol.  Little Nell and Little Em'ly are his creations, though it was readers, not Dickens himself, who called Nell "little," and Emily, rescued from  her life as a "fallen woman," rejects the title specifically: "You need not call me Little, you need not call me by the name I have disgraced."


This illustration (by "Phiz,"  from David Copperfield) shows Miss Mowcher one of Dickens's characters who is  literally a dwarf. 

Once I started looking out for littleness in literature, I found it all over the place.  The habit of using it as an almost meaningless term of affection goes  back much further than Dickens, and different authors use it in different ways.  Sometimes it is meant literally, referring to actual size--"little children" usually are small-- and sometimes it's a sign of condescension-- "little old ladies" covers a range of sizes in geriatric women.  Feminists have pointed to this language as belittling, which many speakers would deny.

They might admit to the self-belittling that is also so common as to be hardly noticed.  Authors over the centuries have spoken of "my little book," intending only to show proper humility.  But within the circle of those artists who call themselves miniaturists, "little" is used more carefully, and makers of miniatures defend themselves against the charge of triviality.

"Cute" is a word that very often accompanies "little," and I'll give it space of its own in these notes later.