October 06, 2015 14:40 UTC

Words and Their Stories

Jefferson Creates New Word: 'Belittle'

The Thomas Jefferson statue in the Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin in Washington.
The Thomas Jefferson statue in the Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin in Washington.


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Now, the VOA Special English program Words and Their Stories.

Today’s word is "belittle." It was first used by Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States.

Many years ago, a French naturalist, the Count de Buffon, wrote some books about natural history. The books were a great success even though some critics did not like them. Some critics said, “Count Buffon is more of a poet than a scientist.”

Thomas Jefferson did not like what the Count had said about the natural wonders of the New World. It seemed to Jefferson that the Count had gone out of his way to speak of natural wonders in America as if they were unimportant.

This troubled Thomas Jefferson. He, too, was a naturalist -- as well as a farmer, inventor, historian, writer and politician. He had seen the natural wonders of Europe. To him, they were no more important than those of the New World.

In 1788, Thomas Jefferson wrote about his home state, Virginia. While writing, he thought of its natural beauty and then of the words of Count de Buffon. At that moment, Jefferson created a new word -- belittle. He said, “The Count de Buffon believes that nature belittles her productions on this side of the Atlantic.”

Noah Webster, the American word expert, liked this word. He put it in his English language dictionary in 1806: "Belittle -- to make small, unimportant."

Americans had already accepted Jefferson’s word and started to use it. In 1797, the Independent Chronicle newspaper used the word to describe a politician the paper supported. “He is an honorable man,” the paper wrote, “so let the opposition try to belittle him as much as they please.”

In 1844, the Republican Sentinel of Virginia wrote this about the opposition party:  “The Whigs may attempt to belittle our candidates...that is a favorite game of theirs.”

In 1872, a famous American word expert decided that the time had come to kill this word. He said, “Belittle has no chance of becoming English. And as more critical writers of America -- like those of Britain -- feel no need of it, the sooner it is forgotten, the better.”

This expert failed to kill the word. Today, belittle is used not only in the United States and England, but in other countries where the English language is spoken. It seems that efforts to belittle the word did not stop people from using it.

You have been listening to the VOA Special English program Words and Their Stories.
I’m Warren Scheer.

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Comments page of 2
by: Mauro Sanchez from: Cuenca, Ecuador
04/26/2014 10:55 PM
In my English Spanish dicctionary belittle translates:Verb, to depress, compress, to diminish, lessen, to give a poor important. So: U.S.A. belittles Russia and Russia belittles Ukranie. Conclusion:U.S.A. belittles Ukraine. See you next time.

by: monkey from: south asian
04/24/2014 10:01 AM
the words of english language contain thousand diferent means, but anyone could know the orignal of them and understand the fact mean of each words... i really thank Thomas Jefferson for inventing or producing the word "belittle" that bring the mean intersting and deep. at the moment, i'm used to use it everyday.... thank you

by: lostgdi from: china
04/22/2014 4:55 AM
Thanks for your article.

by: Epifanio from: México
04/21/2014 8:46 PM
Any language is a medium of social interaction and when a word is useful enough to express something,I mean a characteristic about something or someone as well,this word remains in the linguistic scenario.Perhaps in the years to come we will use new words in information technology,science,etc,because the language evolves constantly.In the case of my mother language,Spanish,it has changed a lot since ancient times.You can see these changes in the most famous novel written in Spanish,"Don Quijote de la Mancha",by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra" Thanks a lot.

by: Melina from: Peru
04/21/2014 6:54 PM
This articulo give a way interesting of learm a new Word : BELITTLE meaning make to small or unimportant


by: thêm from: Việt Nam
04/21/2014 2:33 PM
why can't I download the audio in this web?

In Response

by: nhat
04/24/2014 7:59 AM
you can check a download link at the new window!

In Response

by: Sonha from: Vietnam
04/22/2014 4:45 PM

by: Valter from: Brazil
04/21/2014 12:53 PM
We see in every moment words been created. In that case, the word was produced by someone popular so your writings are readings by many people and then it was caught on, belittle became popular. I believe Thomas Jefferson didn't find the word in that circumstance which fit enough then he brought to light belittle. Great! Thanks for this program!

by: José
04/21/2014 2:19 AM
A nice word from an amazing man.

04/20/2014 3:35 PM
Necessity was the mother of 'Belittle'. Mr. Jefferson was in a necessity to invent the word 'belittle'. He might be under great pressure to give 'tit for tat' for the humiliation he had been undergoing. That gave brith to this rare jewel 'belittle'. My dictionary say it means 'to cause to make less important'. We expect more interesting words and phrases. Thank you.

by: Zainab from: saudia
04/20/2014 2:53 PM
nice story. it is a new word for me. i didn't hear it before.

Comments page of 2

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