April 24, 2014 18:45 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.

 
Comment Sorting
Comment on this forum (9)
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by: thêm from: Việt Nam
04/21/2014 2:33 PM
why can't I download the audio in this web?


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.


by: BIJU.P.Y from: SOUTH INDIA
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.


by: sang from: vietnam
04/20/2014 12:43 PM
i know this word from one AUDIO lessons of AJ.HoGE.this word aim to nag someone!


by: Kashif Lodhi from: Pakistan
04/20/2014 7:02 AM
The words and their stories is very informative section,which really teaches you how the world is discovered and become using in our every day life.


by: Julio Chojeda Torres from: Lima Peru
04/20/2014 2:22 AM
I thank you VOA for sharing with people who are learning this language interesting stories about words. Belittle was one of them, and it was interesting for me when it was used by the first time.

Julio


by: Ze from: Brazil
04/20/2014 2:19 AM
It's already good to learn ...

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