Choosing words

Jonathan Lundell notes “belittle the offense” in this report on an English court case:

An English judge, Judge Anthony Pitts, has shocked police and prosecutors by expressly permitting prep school music teacher Helen Goddard, 26, to continue her relationship with a 15-year-old student after she is released from prison. [Goddard] received a 15-month sentence for her lesbian affair with the 15-year-old student.

Pitts did not belittle the offense, saying that “[t]his case is so serious an immediate sentence of imprisonment is inevitable.”

Lundell found “belittle the offense” a bit strange (as do I), but you can find some other uses of the phrase in serious discussions of legal cases (putting aside instances of “belittle the offense” in writing about football and the like).

Still, dictionary definitions have a negative tone for belittle that’s not quite appropriate in the Pitts story. OED2 has ‘depreciate, decry the importance of’ for the relevant usage (first cite from 1797, all except one cite for belittling people). NSOED shortens this to ‘depreciate, decry’. NOAD2 adds detail: ‘make (someone or something) seem unimportant’. AHD4 gets more specific still: ‘represent or speak of as contemptibly small or unimportant; disparage’.

This is all on the strong side for the Pitts story, where the intended sense is something more like ‘play down, treat lightly, minimize the gravity of’. So the use of belittle in the Pitts story represents a small amelioration in the meaning of the verb, one that Lundell and I haven’t made and that lexicographers haven’t yet recognized.

I get a lot of mail from people saying things like “that’s not the word I would have used” and hoping to get some authoritative opinion from me as a linguist. Usually the best I can say is that small semantic changes happen all the time, and that personal tastes differ.

A footnote to the belittle story: OED2’s first cite for the verb is from 1782, from none other than Thomas Jefferson — but in the sense ‘diminish in size, make small’.

One Response to “Choosing words”

  1. Alan Palmer Says:

    I possibly would have used “belittle the gravity of the offence”.

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