The Grammarphobia Blog

Why are short people called shrimps?

Q: With all the news about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we’ve been hearing the word “shrimp” more than usual these days. For no particular reason (except maybe that I’m a short person), I began to wonder how “shrimp” became a metaphor for all items small. After all, while some shrimp are tiny, others are, well, jumbo – and many critters are much smaller.

A: When the word “shrimp” showed up in English in the early 1300s, it referred to Crago vulgaris (the common shrimp found along the British coast) as well as similar crustaceans, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first published reference in the OED (dated 1327) is a mention in the household accounts of Edward II of three pence for “Shrimpis.”

But by the late 1300s, according to the OED, the word “shrimp” was being used to refer to “a diminutive or puny person (rarely thing). Chiefly contemptuous.”

The earliest citation for this sense of the word is from the “The Monk’s Prologue” in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (c. 1386): “We borel men been shrympes” (“borel men” are laymen).

Why, you ask, is a short person called a shrimp, rather than, say, an amoeba?

Well, one reason may be the origin of the word “shrimp” itself. The OED says it’s probably related to the Middle High German word schrimpen (to shrink up).

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology traces the word back even further to ancient Indo-European roots for wrinkled up or withered.

Chambers says Chaucer’s use of the word to mean small or puny “probably came directly from the etymological sense of a shrunken creature.”

But the dictionary suggests that the modern use of “shrimp” for a small person is related more to the smallness of shrimp than to the ancient etymology of shrimpiness.

And that’s the long and short of it!

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