English’s tiny, moving parts

A friend introduced me to the word tidge today. I had never heard it before but from the context I knew he meant a small amount so naturally, I mistook it for a mis-spelled smidge. As is turns out, the words are closely related but when I started to research tidge, I realised its etymology is evocative of the history of English – especially the way Australians use it.

Smidgen is one of my mother’s favourite words. Originally defined to refer only to a small amount, it is sufficiently imprecise to be useful when referring to time – “in a smidgen” – distance – “a smidgen to your right” – and amount “a smidgen of butter, please”. The latter is especially ironic because we Cairnses don’t often eat a smidgen of anything. And coupled with a broad Queensland accent, the word sounds like a wonderful cairn of a word that has a strong foundation in British English but now comprises of meaning stacked up in its new country.

You would think English would throw up a shorter word than smidgen to mean something small or insignificant. As Sesquiotica points out, take off the second syllable and the word is almost as long. In fact it has: bit; a word overused in the United States in much the same way. It describes time – “in a bit” – and amount – “a bit of a problem”. But interestingly, when used to describe distance – “a bit of a walk” – it seems archaic and English, which I can only ascribe to the US obsession with misusing the word “while” to describe distance.

Americanisms and laziness in our language are endemic. Not a workday goes by that I don’t read about someone driving off (driving away) onto (on to) the sidewalk (footpath) as (because) he was being hunted (chased) by cops (police) – and these are stories written by reporters who are trained to know the difference.

My American husband loves to joke that Australians will shorten every word they can – and he would be correct. What he is only now beginning to appreciate is that it is not always for brevity: we just like to play with the language. We will shorten James to Jim, then stretch it out to Jimmy or Jim Jams (that’s pyjamas, for you northern hemisphere folks). The Wooloongabba Cricket Ground in Brisbane was shortened to the Gabba, then turned into the Gabbatoir during the heyday of the local football team.

Of course, Australians are no saints when it comes to butchering the language. It was an Aussie election candidate who recently thought Islam was a country and the antipodes that gave the world US No.1 hits Let’s Get Physical and Jessie’s Girl. Sorry about that. But being on the front to preserve our language’s uniqueness makes me very sensitive to common mistakes.

So when my friend used the word tidge earlier, I immediately assumed he meant smidge, or smidgen. As it turns out, tidge is another Frankenstein British English word, merged from smidge and tidbit, the latter meaning a small tiding, or money tribute.

I find it interesting that British English has so many common expressions for little things – smidgen, tidbit, pint-sized, squirt, tipple – but most words to describe really big things sound American: gigantic, huge, humongous, massive. One has to wonder if the character of these nations (and their topography) is being outed by their language.

US and Australian English aren’t as different as, say, US English and Indian English, but with so much in common it is those few differences that stand out – a little bit, anyway.