An interview by New York Times culture reporter Sopan Deb with the cast of “Arrested Development” – whose fifth season debuts May 29 on Netflix – took a disturbing turn when one cast member, Jessica Walter, spoke through tears about having been bullied verbally by her co-star, Jeffrey Tambor. A third member of the cast, Jason Bateman (who plays a son of Walter and Tambor), appeared to excuse Tambor’s behavior.
In defending Tambor, Bateman used the word belittle three times, each time claiming not to be belittling the charges. Here’s the second occurrence:
BATEMAN But this is a family and families, you know, have love, laughter, arguments — again, not to belittle it, but a lot of stuff happens in 15 years. I know nothing about “Transparent” but I do know a lot about “Arrested Development.” And I can say that no matter what anybody in this room has ever done — and we’ve all done a lot, with each other, for each other, against each other — I wouldn’t trade it for the world and I have zero complaints.
And the third:
BATEMAN Again, not to belittle it or excuse it or anything, but in the entertainment industry it is incredibly common to have people who are, in quotes, “difficult.”
An unexceptionable word, right? Not quite. It’s accepted today, but belittle was once, well, belittled ... despite a distinguished pedigree. The first person to use it in print appears to have been none other than Thomas Jefferson. Here’s how the Merriam-Webster blog tells the story:
Jefferson had recently published his two-volume work Notes on the State of Virginia (it was released privately in the early 1780s, and published publicly in 1787), a book which contained the line “So far the Count de Buffon has carried this new theory of the tendency of nature to belittle her productions on this side of the Atlantic.”
An anonymous reviewer in London, clutching his imaginary pearls, sputtered in response: “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! Freely, good sir, we will forgive you all your attacks, impotent as they are illiberal, upon our national character; but for the future, spare – O spare, we beseech you, our mother tongue!”
Tut-tut, Anon. It couldn’t have been all that difficult to “guess” at the meaning of belittle: little has been an English word since the Anglo-Saxon era, and the be- prefix has been attaching itself to verbs for just as long. (Beget, behold, and become are all Old English words.) Still, anti-Americanism-ism – a term Lynne Murphy coined in The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English – has long been a competitive sport.
Jefferson was using belittle in its physical sense: “to reduce in size; to make small.” Another American writer, George Henry Calvert, used belittle in the same way in 1846 when he wrote “The billowy sea of Shakspeare [sic] is belittled to a smooth pond, in every part whereof you can touch bottom.” Concurrently, though, belittle was also being used in its contemporary sense: “to speak slightingly of; to disparage.” By 1862 even the English writer Anthony Trollope was using it that way in his account of his travels in North America: “Washington was a great man, and I believe a good man. I, at any rate, will not belittle him.”
Moral: Don’t belittle new words, many of which turn out to be perfectly cromulent.
As for Jason Bateman, he apologized for his comments. The always-admirable Sorry Watch called the apology “decent” but not perfect.
Bonus word of the week: I wrote about goat rodeo for Strong Language, the sweary blog about swearing.