The Big and the Small of It

11 words and phrases from 'big league' to 'small and early'
baseball diamond photo

definition - something or some group that is outstanding of its kind (as in stature, quality, or worth)

Big league has a fairly literal meaning (“major league” or “any comparable sports association”) which has been in use since the 1870s. The figurative use defined above is often found used in an attributive sense, in which it modifies another noun (“a big league politician”). Big league is sometimes phonetically confused with bigly, an adverb that means “in a big manner.”

It has been let out, that the Evansville club was not organized for the purpose of going on a round of victorious games, but only to play against the big league clubs, to let our citizens have a sight at the way professional muscle can handle the ball and bat.
Evansville Courier and Press (Evansville, IN), 17 Jun. 1877

school of fish photo

definition - minor, unimportant

What are fry, and are they ever large? The answer to the second question is “probably not,” as fry are “recently hatched or juvenile fishes.” These fish have been referred to as small fry since the 16th century, and the extended use which is more common today dates back to the middle of the 17th.

”Make a pinch,” I cut in. “Not me—you’re small fry, McCleary. I want the name of the big gun behind you, and I’m playing you off against him.”
The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, OH), 9 Feb. 1930

pinocchio doll photo

definition - a deliberate gross distortion of the truth used especially as a propaganda tactic

There are many words for something that is not true—lie, falsity, whopper, and many more—but few, if any, of these words carry the addition meaning of “propaganda tactic.” If you are looking for a way instead to describe “a trivial or childish lie” the word you want is fib.

Once more, in the case of Lord Halifax, the Reichsfuehrer seems to have demonstrated that he knew human nature when he wrote in his autobiography that the “big lie” was the most serviceable because people generally could not imagine a responsible statesman using it.
The Kansas City Times (Kansas City, MO), 19 Mar. 1938

water cooler photo

definition - light or casual conversation

The social lubricant known as small talk has no dearth of synonyms; a partial list of these includes backchat, cackle, causerie, chat, chatter, chin music, chin-wag, chitchat, confab, confabulation, gab, gabfest, gossip, jangle, jaw, natter, palaver, patter, rap, schmooze, table talk, and tête-à-tête. If one wishes to include words and phrases not included in our dictionary, the list may grow to include talking with uncomfortable small pauses, avoiding topics of substance, and please don't ask me about that thing.

Wherupon shortly after hee was brought to the Chauncellour of Norwiche (whose name was Dunning:) who after a few wordes & small talk passed with this examinate, committed him to Warde.
— John Foxe, Actes and monuments, 1583

woman giving talk photo

definition - a person of consequence

The speakers of the English language are very fond of applying the descriptor big to other words in order to refer to an important person (big boss, big dog, big hitter, etc.), and perhaps the most whimsical of such combinations is the big cheese. This word came into use in the early 20th century, although prior to that big and cheese were used in conjunction to describe a cheese of unusual size.

The Berkshire American states that Mr. Israel Cole, of North Adams, has made a “hundred pound cheese to be presented to Jackson, in case he is elected President.” Mr. C. may consider his cheese as good as sold, of rather given away already. But we suppose if Mr. Jackson should not be elected,—he’ll stand no chance for the big cheese? What sort of charity is this? If fortun smiles upon a man, give him a cheese—but if she frowns—starve him to death.
Poulson’s Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia, PA), 14 Nov. 1828

He knows he possesses the goods and nothing will deter him from jumping into a regular uniform, getting his name in the box scores every other afternoon, and showing the folks at Oklahoma that he is the “big cheese.”
Miami Herald (Miami, FL), 15 Aug. 1912

light beer photo

Definition - something of small importance

While big is often used in conjunction with some noun to indicate an important person, small pairs itself with a noun to refer to a thing of little importance. We have small potatoes, small change, and small beer. In addition to “something unimportant,” small beer may refer to actual beer, if it is of the weak or inferior variety.

Ile be your daily Orator to pray that, that pure sanguine complexion of yours may neuer be famisht with pot-lucke, that you may tast till your last gaspe, and liue to see the confusion of both your speciall enemies, Small Beere and Grammer Rules.
— Thomas Nash, The apologie of Pierce Pennilesse, 1592

camera lens photo

definition - an all-powerful government or organization monitoring and directing people's actions

Big Brother initially referred simply to an older brother, and later took on the figurative sense of “a man who serves as a companion, father figure, and role model for a boy.” Since 1949 and the publication of George Orwell’s book 1984, in which the personification of the power of the government is referred to as Big Brother, the words have increasingly come to take on a political use. When referring to this sort of intrusive and prying state agency both words are often capitalized.

Americans may think somewhat wistfully of the range and power of Soviet space vehicles; perhaps Soviet scientists (when Big Brother isn’t listening) muse about the delicacy and adaptability of American experiments.
New York Herald Tribune, 30 Jun. 1961

old tv photo

definition - television

While television screens may seem to be in a perpetual process of growing each year, they (for the moment, at least) are not yet as large as those of the movies. Thus we have idiomatic terms for each of these media: small screen and big screen. In early use small screen was simply a descriptor of the size of the portion of the television that one looked at; in the 1940s and 1950s it came to function as a synonym for both television sets and the industry of television.

The small screen of television distresses people at first; and, even after a year, the British public has registered its opinion that a larger size would be agreeable.
Photoplay (Chicago, IL), Oct. 1938

It takes only a brief acquaintance with television comedy to discover the small screen’s particular congeniality to the “low-pressure” comedian.
— Rod Nordell, The Christian Science Monitor (Boston, MA), 5 Mar. 1953

barbed wire fence photo

Definition - penitentiary

In addition to big house, the clink, hoosegow, joint, the nick, and the pokey are all fine slang terms for jail, should you ever have need of a half-dozen or so such synonyms. Big house also has a now obsolete meaning of “workhouse” (“a house of correction for persons guilty of minor law violations”).

This Jim was set free in Danville, some nine years since, and had served in the big house at Frankfort, the Penitentiary, two years, and for 3 years past had been in this city.
Daily Courier (Louisville, KY), 19 Feb. 1858

dinner party photo

definition - an evening party (such as an informal reception or dance) attended by comparatively few guests and breaking up early

An event called a small and early seems like it should take place during the small hours, but these two things occur at quite different times. The small and early (aka ‘a dinner party given by those who have lots of things to do tomorrow, thank you very much’) takes place in the early evening, whereas the small hours are “the early morning hours.” If your small and early is still going in the small hours, it is no longer a small and early.

The great and exclusive Mrs. Rockegge (wife of the member for Greenshire), who has forbidden her lord to enter the House of Peers under anything less than an earl’s coronet, for invitations to whose “small and earlies” duchesses have been known to intrigue—this great and exclusive lady, I say, accompanied by her daughters, is driven up to the pen with the blue flag next to the Royal standard, who the instincts of her coachman selects as her place. But, alas! her cards are green.
Temple Bar: a London magazine for town and country readers (London, Eng.), Dec. 1876

vain man photo

definition - conceited, vain

Biggety (also spelled biggity) is used mainly in the South and east central United States, and is formed by adding the -ety suffix (as in persnickety) to big. The word has the additional meaning of "rudely self-important, impudent".

Bill Kid came down to the new ground that Brother Pleas was clearing, and beginned some of his biggity talk, and how he was the best man in the settlement, and so on.
Yorkville Enquirer (York, SC), 15 Mar. 1915