The English language derides smallness at every turn.
What could be less pleasant than a small-time, small-fry, petit-bourgeois hotelier in some one-horse Podunk town who is being short with you about some small-potatoes, small-beer issue? Are you supposed to get into the nitty-gritty about the price (specified in the small print) of that bite-sized chocolate bar you took from the mini-bar in your dinky (originally meaning neat and trim) room, barely big enough to be called a junior suite, with the tacky (which used to refer to a small and thus inferior horse) wallpaper? Who would want to make this kind of small talk with such a petty person?
But tiny can be strong, and simplicity beautiful. Here, in a tightly edited list, is an argument for the power of small:
- Hemingway’s prose. Sparse and clean (from the German klein, meaning delicate, fine and little).
- Madeleines, petit fours and macarons – preferably eaten by gamines with cute bobs wearing miniskirts.
- The lower case. Without it, our text messages would feel like shouts. The term comes from the two trays where compositors kept their types, the lower and more accessible case holding the small letters. Capitals have long dominated the corporate sphere (IBM, NYSE, ATT) but Apple and its i’s are making the minuscule chic.
- Atoms, microfinance, netsuke, microchips, bantamweight boxers.
- The diminutive form. Many tongues use it for terms of affection, although with all of its extra syllables, the diminutive can result in some bulky tongue-twisters. The one bestowing the diminutive does not necessarily have to be bigger or older than the recipient. For instance, if my bubbe makes me especially tasty rugelach (literally, “little twists”), I might refer to her by the even more affectionate bubbeleh (a general term of endearment that can also be technically translated as “little grandmother”).
- Frank Sinatra’s version of In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning. All vocalists, lyricists and arrangers should listen to it as a lesson in economy. Same goes for the two-minute-and-forty-second miracle that is The Ronettes’ Be My Baby.
- Anchovies and espresso (though not together). Haiku. Minimalism. Little old ladies and toddlers.
- Running a small business. No bosses and no corporate excess.
- Binary code. What has shaped our world more dramatically than 1 and 0?
- The studio apartment. If all goes well, no other setting is as conducive to intimacy and friendship.
- The teachings of Lao Tzu. A few declarative sentences that can forever change the way you think. “The perception of what is small is the secret of clear-sightedness; the guarding of what is soft and tender is the secret of strength.” Politicians might do well to heed Lao’s instructions to “govern a great state as you would cook a small fish.”
- Jockeys, Volkswagen Beetles, The White Stripes, Twitter …
Wait! There's more!
If only this small-minded editor would let me go on a little longer.
Mark Braude is six feet tall. Having researched the tiny principality of Monaco for five years for his dissertation, he knows a few things about "small." He is completing a PhD in European history at USC.