Biggering and ensmalling

From Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky’s blog, about her daughter (age 5):

… we were discussing mangos. Opal said they grew on bushes, I said they grew on trees. I cited Mangaboom as a source; she pointed out that it was a story. So I went to the Internet! On my phone. She was OK with the pictures of mango trees, but what she was fascinated by was the process of making the picture bigger. “Hey, can I bigger it?” she said. I explained that “bigger” made sense, but we say “enlarge”. She said, quite patiently really, “Can I enlarge it? And then ensmall it?” Boy, was I sorry to explain that the opposite of “enlarge” is, of all things, “reduce”.

It’s not just little kids. You can find some hits for bigger ‘enlarge’, mostly (but not entirely) in computer contexts. For instance:

How did you do that neat texturing? It really DOES look like an adobe wall, I clicked on the pic to bigger it and it looks very cool! (link)

And yes again, 3D glasses will actually work on this (red on your left eye, blue on your right). Oh, and as always, click to bigger it: … (link)

i am 16 and my penis is 13 cm and quite thin.i am quite tall for my age. is my penis going to grow any more? what can i do to bigger it? LENGTH AND WIDTH … (link)

As for ensmall, there are cites where it’s clearly treated as an innovation:

What is more logical than the opposite of ‘enlarge’, namely ‘ensmall’. There are many things in our daily lives that we might want to make smaller – cars, … (link)

in our families find ways to ‘ensmall’ rather than enlarge our spending, and make our presence rather than presents a sign of our interest and love? (link)

But there are other occurrences. OED2 has an entry for ensmall, though it’s marked as rare, and the dictionary has only one cite:

1857 THOMSON Land & Book IV. xl. 612 To reconcile my previous anticipations with the vastly ensmalled reality.

And it still crops up, again mostly in computer contexts:

For them and for anyone else who needs to ensmall a detailed image, here’s my amateur recipe for generating good thumbnails via PhotoShop: … (link)

This is a Craigslist ad that seems to be real. I’m going to ensmall it at the bottom in case the URL doesn’t persist. (link)

Bigger ‘make bigger, enlarge’ is a (causativizing) verbing of an adjective, a comparative adjective at that. Verbing of adjectives in English is usually affixal (as in en-large, damp-en, modern-ize); zero derivation is rare. But kids are fond of zero derivation (of all sorts), and for good reason:  it allows them to expand their vocabulary at essentially no cost.

Ensmall is a more sophisticated innovation, verbing the adjective small via the prefix en- (a pattern that is not productive in English). But it’s a natural innovation, created on analogy with enlarge (and exploiting the opposition of large and small), which is transparently what Opal, having just been offered the model enlarge by her mother, did.

There are several other possible verbings of small: zero-derived small, suffixed smallen, doubly affixed ensmallen, suffixed smallize. All of these are non-standard, but all are attested — a tribute to people’s fondness for regularity.

7 Responses to “Biggering and ensmalling”

  1. mollymooly Says:

    “Embiggen” is popularised by an episode of “The Simpsons”. Jebediah Springfield, founder of Springfield, gives the town its motto: “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.”

  2. The Dane Says:

    You linked to me with the 3D glasses bit. Just wanted to say that I often use embiggen as well. I generally only use bigger and embiggen and the like in casual contexts to be, well, cute. I wasn’t aware of the Simpsons link, but it’s a reasonable enough extrapolation on existing English terms that I doubt it’s uncommon enough that we could attribute its origin to a single source.

  3. David W. Fenton Says:

    Back in the days when I was training DOS users to use Windows, the process of changing window sizes was complicated by the terminology Microsoft used in the menus. Minimize and Maximize made perfect sense, but Restore never seemed to click with those in the training classes. So I always called it Mediumize. This produced instant understanding and was committed to memory and become something they didn’t forget.

    Likewise (and unrelated to “bigger/ensmall”), I always used a misperception of one of my clients to help others interpret one of the cryptic icons on the toolbars in their Windows apps. The SAVE icon is actually intended to represent a floppy disk (something that’s increasingly outdated these days). It always seemed very clear to me, so one day I suggested to a client that she click on the floppy disk icon. “What floppy disk icon,” she asked. I pointed it out to her and she said “you mean the TELEVISION?”

    So, from then on when training people on what that icon meant, I’d call it the Television, and when they needed to save, all they had to do was CLICK THE TELEVISION.

    I don’t know why it worked — perhaps because they found it as amusing as I — but it always did.

    David W. Fenton

  4. mae Says:

    Tangentially: an early visual interface advertised that it had “sizeable” windows. That didn’t mean large windows (which was the first thing that came to my mind) — it meant you could change the sizes of the window areas.

    • arnoldzwicky Says:

      To mae on sizeable: this is in fact the transparent derivative from the verb size ‘alter in size’, so meaning ‘able to be sized, able to be altered in size’. Unfortunately, the more opaque adjective got there first, so it tends to pre-empt this one.

  5. Nathan Says:

    My first exposure to causative bigger was in Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax.

  6. Kim Belcher Says:

    There’s always Dr Seuss’s Lorax:

    “…I’m figgering
    on biggering
    and biggering
    and biggering
    and biggering!”

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