English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Word origin Writing

A mite interesting?

Q: I’m curious about this Bloomberg sentence: “Finding twice as many old regulations to cut may be a mite challenging—less so at first, more so as time goes by.” Is the word “mite” a typo?

A: No, “mite” in that Bloomberg opinion piece isn’t a typo. It’s part of the idiom “a mite,” which means “somewhat,” “rather,” or “slightly.”

Some dictionaries consider the usage informal or old-fashioned, though most of the ones we’ve seen list it without comment—that is, acceptable in formal as well as informal English. In fact, we use it a mite ourselves.

Interestingly, English has two versions of the word “mite,” one referring to a bug and the other to something small, though both are probably derived from the same reconstructed prehistoric Germanic root, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

When the first “mite” showed up in Anglo-Saxon times, inherited from Germanic sources, it referred to “any of various very small arachnids and insects,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It still has that bug sense.

The OED’s first example is from the Antwerp Glossary, a Latin-Old English lexicon dating from the early 11th century: “Ta[r]mus, maþa mite.” (In that citation, the Latin for “woodworm” is defined as “maggot mite” in Old English.)

Oxford says English borrowed the second “mite” in the 14th century from Middle Dutch, where a similar term had the literal sense of a small copper coin (apparently worth a third of a Flemish penny) and the figurative sense of a small amount of something.

Ayto, in his etymological dictionary, says both versions of “mite” can probably be traced back to mītǭ, a prehistoric Germanic root “meaning ‘cut’ (hence ‘something cut up small’).”

When the second “mite” showed up in English, according to the OED, it could refer to “any small coin of low value,” or it could be part of various sayings meaning “a small or insignificant amount.”

The dictionary’s earliest examples for both senses are from a translation, dated sometime before 1375, of Guillaume de Palerme, a French tale also known as William and the Werewolf:

“Non miȝt a-mand a mite worþ” (“None mght command the worth of a mite”). Oxford includes this citation among examples of the coin sense.

“Al þe men vpon mold it amende ne miȝt … half a mite” (“All the men upon the earth might not be improved … half a mite”). Oxford includes this citation among examples for proverbial sayings such as  “not worth a mite,” “not care a mite,” and “a mite’s worth.”

At about the same time, “mite” took on the more general sense of “a very small amount.” The first OED citation is from Piers Plowman (c. 1378), the allegorical poem by William Langland:

“Surgerye ne Fisyke May nouȝte a myte auaille to medle aȝein elde” (“Surgery and medicine are nothing but a mite in the battle against age”).

The term “widow’s mite” (a small contribution by a poor person) showed up in the late 16th century.

The first (and only) OED citation is from a 1595 translation of the French romance about Blanchardine and Eglantine: “Crauing your acceptance of this pore widowes mite.”

As the dictionary notes, the usage comes from Mark in the New Testament. Here’s the passage in the Coverdale Bible of 1535:

“And there came a poore wyddowe, and put in two mytes, which make a farthinge.”

In the mid-19th century, the word “mite” came to be used in the sense you’re asking about—as an idiom used adverbially to mean “somewhat, slightly, a little bit.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, describes the usage as colloquial, or informal, though, as we’ve said, many standard dictionaries consider it acceptable in formal as well as informal English.

The first Oxford example for the idiomatic usage is from the January 1852 issue of Punch: “Wearing shoes that were not a mite too big for her.”

And here’s an example from the Christmas 1897 issue of the Graphic, an illustrated weekly newspaper: “I wonder whether you will help me a mite to-day.”

The latest example in the dictionary is from Pepper, a 1993 novel by Tristan Hawkins about a hard-drinking advertising executive in London: “All evening he’s seemed a mite awkward.”

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