Small & Små: Little words with big histories

The Small coat-of-arms

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

The English word small and the Norwegian equivalent word små both come from the Old Norse smár. Today they are much used, in many denotations. In Norwegian, Kunnskapforlaget’s Norsk Ordbok lists four usages of the word små as an adjective and an adverb and more than 100 usages of små in compound words. The Clue Norwegian-English dictionary lists 210 compounds in which små is the first word. In English, the complete Oxford English dictionary lists 36 definitions of small as an adjective, adverb, and noun.

Moreover, in English, the word small was taken up in a class of surnames based on physical attributes; a person with the surname of Small was not large. In feudal Europe of the 12th century, surnames became heridatary. In Scotland, there were many families named Small, each with its own coat-of-arms, as the one shown here.

There’s more to the etymology of small than modern linguistic prevalence in two languages, from a single source word from antiquity. It seems most likely that smár in Old Norse came from the Old Frisian word smel, because the Frisians came before the Vikings in the history of European culture.

In turn, that speculative connection reflects a refeshing new look at European history put forth by journalist and author Michael Pye in a new book, The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are. If Pye is right, and reading his well-written, exhaustively referenced book suggests that he may well be, the North Sea rivals the Mediterranean Sea as a cradle of European civilization. The fall of the Roman Empire didn’t reduce the North to a wasteland. On the contrary, the Frisians, then the Vikings, then the Hanseatic merchants created the preconditions for modern Europe.

Might the histories of these two little words, small and små, be thought of as part of the ancillary linguistic evolution, little keys to the backgrounds of modern vocabularies?

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 20, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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