Thomas Jefferson and the Word “belittle”


1.      To represent or speak of as contemptibly small or unimportant; disparage: a person who belittled our efforts to do the job right.

2. To cause to seem less than another or little: The size of the office tower belittles the surrounding buildings. See synonyms at decry.

Origin: 1782

In our infancy as a nation, to balance our sense of grandeur and moral superiority, we had a little bit of an inferiority complex. We lacked the corruption of the Old World, but also its sophistication. We were country cousins at the courts of Europe. But at least we had our grand spectacles of nature: forests and mountains, lakes and waterfalls, teeming herds and flocks of animals stranger and more numerous than any seen in the worn-out continents on the other side of the ocean.

Or did we? Our sense of American pride was especially stung by a condescending European notion that even our wildlife was inferior. Thomas Jefferson could not let this insult passunchallenged. “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,” Jefferson wrote in 1782 in his Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson then replied to the buffoonish count, expounding for many pages on the grandness of American animals, noting in particular the enormous bones of the mammoth, so much bigger than those of any Old World elephant. (In 1802 the MAMMOTH would come to life in the American vocabulary in a new way, thanks also to Jefferson.)

For this defense, Jefferson himself was belittled–because of his use of the very word belittle. Jefferson, apparently, was the inventor of belittle, and Notes was its first appearance in print. TheEuropean Magazine and London Review denounced the word so strongly that decades later American commentators on American English still claimed that nobody but Jefferson used it. They were wrong, however. Belittle had become an unobjectionable word on both sides of the Atlantic before the nineteenth century was half over. Today nobody belittles belittle.



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