Words at Play

It's the Little Things

8 Handy Words When You Just Need a Pinch of Something


It is a pity that, by the fault of a narrow education, he should have so completely immolated himself to that one idea of his, especially as the slightest modicum of common-sense would teach him its utter impracticability.
—Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance, 1852

Modicum derives via Middle English from Latin modus, meaning "measure." A modicum is literally a small measure of something, and implies an amount that meets a bare minimum.

"I want you should sell to me. I don't say what I'm going to do with the property, and you will not have an iota of responsibility, whatever happens."
—William Dean Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham, 1885

Iota is the 9th letter of the Greek alphabet, equivalent to our letter i. Latin scholars transcribed the Greek name as iota and jota, and both iota and jot represent the name for the Greek letter in English.

The letter's slightness of shape led to the use of iota to mean "a small amount." It is often used in negative contexts, such as "not one iota of truth."

Jot, incidentally, appears in the phrase every jot and tittle, referring to small details. The word tittle refers to the dot that we place over a lowercase i or j.

But I was beyond embarrassment, and on my way to Budapest, determined to learn at least a smidgen of Hungarian, reputedly one of the world's most difficult languages.
—Daisann McLane, The New York Times, 21 June 1988

It's believed that smidgen was formed as an alteration of the English dialectical noun smitch, meaning a soiling mark, in the 19th century. Smitch belongs to a family of words including smit and smitchel, all of which have essentially the same meaning.

The movie feels even more over-the-top comic book-ish than most current comic books do. But this is merely a reflection of Raimi's enthusiasm. His subdued commentary track gives only an inkling of it, but there's obvious passion behind those cheesy images.
—Tom Russo, The Boston Globe, 10 Mar. 2002

Inkling can refer to a hint or suspicion of something, like an idea, but in broader use means "a slight indication or suggestion."

There's no connection to ink here; inkling derives from the Middle English yngkiling ("whisper or mention") and probably from the verb inclen ("to hint at").

The lesser-known English dialectical verb inkle means "to have an idea or hint of" and is a back-formation of inkling.

Though it’s perhaps a skosh saltier than most, the pho at Pho Saigon Noodle House 2 is as aromatic and palate-pleasing as you’ll find in Utah.
—Ted Scheffler, Salt Lake City Weekly, 29 Mar. 2017

Skosh is a contraction of the Japanese word sukoshi, which means "a tiny bit" or "a small amount." U.S servicemen stationed in Japan are credited with adopting the word after World War II. Later, in the Korean War, the word was used as a nickname for a soldier of short stature.

Shakespeare scholars get their moments of fun, too, but this show doesn’t require a whit of prior knowledge to enjoy. It’s its own age of enlightenment.
—Bruce R. Miller, The Sioux City Journal, 17 May 2017

Like iota, whit is used typically in negative expressions, as "I don't care a whit about the new movie." It is a word that dates back centuries and was used frequently by Shakespeare:

HOST. I perceive you delight not in music.
JULIA. Not a whit, when it jars so.
—William Shakespeare, The Two Gentleman of Verona, 1595

Etymologists have suspected whit to be an alteration of the Middle English noun wiht or wight, meaning "creature" or "thing."

Known for a contemporary polish to her pieces, this collection, while a slight departure, still had all the trappings of a versatile urban look, just a tad more easy-going than we are used to seeing from this designer.
—Kit Hamlen, Paste, 8 June 2015

Just like skosh, tad can be used adverbially in the phrase a tad, as in the example above. Tad can also refer to a small child, and it's possible that the "small amount" sense derived from the Middle English word for "toad." The same root puts the tad in tadpole.

So he chooses not to shave — and by evening a faint shadow has stolen across his chin and, with it, a soupcon of mystery.
—Alexander Gilmour, Financial Times, 16 Aug. 2017

Soupcon was borrowed from the French, where it was used to mean "drop," "touch," or "suspicion," and ultimately derives from a Latin verb meaning "to suspect." Used in a range of contexts, from cooking to politics, soupcon (which sometimes retains the cedilla from its French spelling) often describes a minimal presence of something that is detected by the senses—from a flavor note in a wine or sauce to a whiff of skepticism about a claim.




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