Belittle: To make small; to disparage; to scorn as worthless.
From our vantage point in the second decade of the twenty-first century, it’s hard to fathom that belittle was once reviled as vulgar and—as late as 1926, in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage—“an undesirable alien.” Such, however, is the well-documented case, as Ammon Shea enlightens us in his eminently readable new book, Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation (Perigee).* Belittle—like ain’t, enormity, split infinitives, and sentence-ending prepositions—is one of those language “mistakes” that pedants over the years have pointed to as proof that English is on its last legs.
In the case of belittle, the bewailing began more than two centuries ago. In a chapter titled “Words That Are Not Words,” Shea writes:
Belittle may look like a fine old English word, but it has the whiff of cheap backwoods neologism to it. It was coined in the early 1780s by Thomas Jefferson, shortly after the American Revolution, a time when there was a marked tendency on the part of some residents of the United Kingdom to cast aspersions at our country. Jefferson used the word (in the sense “to make small”) in Notes on the State of Virginia, in response to what he thought were incorrect notions of American wildlife made by Georges-Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon: “So far the Count de Buffon has carried this new theory of the tendency of nature to belittle her productions on this side the Atlantic.”
On the other side of the pond, the response was part sputter, part sneer. Shea cites a passage from a 1787 issue of the London Review:
Belittle!—What an expression!—It may be an elegant one in Virginia, and even perhaps perfectly intelligible; but for our part, all we can do is, to guess at its meaning.—For shame, Mr. Jefferson! … O spare, we beseech you, our mother-tongue!
Makes you think twice before clutching your pearls over embiggen.
Other “words that are not words” investigated by Shea include balding (on grounds that there has never been a verb to bald, except there was, in the seventeenth century); stupider (on which Shea casts a linguistically objective eye); and, of course, our old friend irregardless. In his closing chapter, “221 Words That Were Once Frowned Upon,” Shea rounds up some not-so-usual subjects and the arguments once made against them: accessorize (“a bastard offshoot of the noun accessory”), aren’t I (“an ungrammatical colloquialism”), brainy (“singularly disagreeable”), debut (“a good noun, a lousy verb”), dress (“properly called a gown by everybody”), zoom (“an aviation term, concerns only upward mobility”), and dozens more. Shea also devotes three pages to contact (verb), about which I myself have written a fair amount.
Lately I’ve been paring down my book collection, but I’ve made an exception for Bad English. If you enjoy language (and since you’re reading this I suspect you do), I encourage you to do so as well.