A very important question keeps coming up at our dinner table. When someone asks for a beverage refill often the word smidgen is used. "Please give me just a smidgen more of that lemonade, would you?" Then the questions start. How much is a smidgen?
My 1951 copy of the Thorndike-Barnhart Dictionary did not even include the word, I wondered if it had been coined since that time. But when I looked into Webster's Third International Dictionary I found the word, even with alternate spellings of smidgeon and smidgin. It tells us that the word means a small amount: BIT, MITE.
So now we have two more words that don't specify exact amounts. I looked up BIT in the 1951 copy and found that it is a small piece; small amount. OK so bit and smidgen are the same? Maybe I'd better see what mite means officially. After we dismissed the meaning of the spiderlike creatures that pester us, we found that mite is anything very small; little bit.
Good, we have bit, mite and smidgen all referring to small things. But none of them say how small. However, before our family member dies of thirst we must make some decision on how much to pour into the waiting glass. Hoping to clarify the situation, a suggestion was made to just pour a dab of lemonade into the glass and forget about definitions.
A dab? Commercials have taught us that "just a little dab will do you," so we know that dabs come in different sizes. There can't be a little dab, if there isn't also a medium and large dab. But if there is a large dab, is it really a dab anymore?
Back to the dictionary we go. We find as an alternate meaning that dab is "a little bit." That makes us realize that a dab then is less than a bit if a dab can be a little bit. With the lemonade pitcher still being held aloft, another diner suggests to just pour a taste more into the glass. OK the fourth definition for the word taste is "a little bit."
What a dilemma! In a family of readers and writers, we like to use correct grammar and vocabulary. But with so many unspecific definitions of several words all having the same general meaning, we have decided that we must yield correctness of language to correctness of manners. We must just take a wild guess and put just a swallow more into the glass. If we weren't thinking about a liquid we could also put a pinch more, or add just a hair more into the glass.
These figures of speech bring up some unsanitary thoughts so we dismissed those ideas. Actually whatever amount is poured, the wishes of the glass holder and the pitcher pourer will probably differ and the glass will be a little fuller or more empty than desired.
One way to avoid such uncertainties is to either just serve from commercially filled bottles or cans, or to bring a measuring cup to the table for those who require an exact amount.
But that makes it a dab harder for the hostess who by this time is just a hair away from giving everyone a piece of her mind.