pageok
pageok
pageok
Small Beer:

I've just had an inquiry from an editor asking what I meant by the expression "small beer" and asking if it was a common expression and whether others would know what I was referring to. As in the following sentence:

When the questions of war and peace were on the table in ways that involved directly the world's great powers, then the NGOs and global civil society seemed small beer indeed.

Does this use of "small beer" seem too obscure? My understanding is that the expression is British and dates back to at least the 18th century in the meaning of persons or matters of no account of little consequence. At least, that's how I've always used it. Am I right and even if I am, is the phrase nowadays overly obscure?

Melancton Smith:
Is that like 3.2 beer?
9.15.2009 9:49pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Small beer is like Bud Light, Budweiser, Coors, etc.

Skullsplitter, on the other hand, is not small beer.
9.15.2009 9:52pm
drunkdriver:
I've seen it used occasionally. I like it, but then I like the occasional old-school phrase.
9.15.2009 9:52pm
ohwilleke:
I've never heard the expression. If it is in current use, it is regional and obscure elsewhere.
9.15.2009 9:52pm
Matthew in Austin:
I've never heard the phrase before, but its meaning seemed easy enough to infer from your example.

Seems equivalent to "small potatoes". Perhaps the puritans changed the phrase here in the states.
9.15.2009 9:56pm
ayzc:
I use it. On the other hand I read a lot of old books and may have picked it up from one of them.
9.15.2009 9:56pm
aces:
The phrase goes back at least to Shakespeare, as in Othello, Act 2, Scene 1:

IAGO
She that was ever fair and never proud,
Had tongue at will and yet was never loud,
Never lack'd gold and yet went never gay,
Fled from her wish and yet said 'Now I may,'
She that being anger'd, her revenge being nigh,
Bade her wrong stay and her displeasure fly,
She that in wisdom never was so frail
To change the cod's head for the salmon's tail;
She that could think and ne'er disclose her mind,
See suitors following and not look behind,
She was a wight, if ever such wight were,--

DESDEMONA
To do what?

IAGO
To suckle fools and chronicle small beer.

DESDEMONA
O most lame and impotent conclusion! Do not learn
of him, Emilia, though he be thy husband.
9.15.2009 9:59pm
David McCourt (mail):
I certainly don't think it is an obscure expression, and think that people, as opposed to editors, would have no trouble knowing what you mean by it. (I am not English and do not live in England).

By the way, I once wrote a paper on the ineffectiveness of English county militias in the decades after 1689, and noted in it the fact that when the Jacobite army crossed into northwest England in 1745, its code word for the English militia was "small beer."
9.15.2009 10:02pm
Steve2:
einhverfr, I was thinking the other way around: Small Beer is the good beer, the craft brewers of strong and flavorful beer, locked in eternal struggle against the evils of Big Beer and its adjunct-born watery insipidity.
9.15.2009 10:06pm
KenB (mail):
Despite "small beer's" Shakespearean roots, perhaps it and "small potatoes" are, in this country at least, regional variations. Matthew in Austin referred to "small potatoes," and being from Texas myself, I am familiar with "small potatoes." Even before I read Matthew from Austin's comment, "small beer" reminded me of "small potatoes."
9.15.2009 10:14pm
OrinKerr:
I appreciate any beer reference, but I think it's pretty obscure. I sometimes use "small beans" instead, but I don't know if it's any less obscure (or maybe more?).
9.15.2009 10:16pm
Bama 1L:
I know this phrase and understood your meaning. I do think it's uncommon in American usage. I don't think I'd ever use it in academic writing for that reason.
9.15.2009 10:17pm
OrinKerr:
I should add that henceforth I will be using it, at least once a day.
9.15.2009 10:17pm
EnriqueArmijo (mail):
Both Judge Posner and Sandy Levinson have used it recently. Your use seems right to me, and I agree with drunkdriver; it doesn't jar my ear or eye at all, and it's a bit more elegant than, say, "chump change."
9.15.2009 10:19pm
Leo Marvin (mail):
I'd be concerned at being edited by someone who's never heard the expression. I probably get most of my cultural references from YouTube and ESPN, and I wouldn't call it even borderline obscure. Not common, but not obscure.
9.15.2009 10:19pm
Teh Anonymous:
I'd say "small beer" is obscure. But its meaning is generally easy to infer from context, IMO anyway. "Small beans" I've never heard (until now).
9.15.2009 10:20pm
Leo Marvin (mail):
Orin, considering how many people owe you a beer, I'm not sure this is an association you want to encourage.
9.15.2009 10:21pm
Dennis Nolan (mail):
"Small beer" is low-alcohol beer, sometimes made from the "second runnings" of a very strong beer. The term goes back a long way but I first ran into an explanation of its meaning in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturn series of books set in the Napoleonic era. When supplies ran low, one character complains that all they have left is small beer (as opposed to real beer, ale, or grog). Check the wikipedia entry for more usage information.
9.15.2009 10:22pm
one of many:
Now that you mention I don't think Ive seen the phrase used in a long time, even to distinguish actual small beer. In reference to Steve2, small beer is a term used to denote exactly the evil you attribute to Big Beer, a watery variation of beer with a low alcoholic content drunk as we drink water now in those times when drinking water was health hazard. You drink small beer to quench your thirst, you drink (non-small) beer to get a buzz. Small beer, to me, has always connotated ineffective weakness with a sense of ordinariness about it, I read it in that sense more than as a variation of small potatoes (of little consequence).
9.15.2009 10:23pm
Nathan_M (mail):
I've seen it used many times before, but only in The Economist and not in American English.
9.15.2009 10:23pm
:) (mail):
I think it is also called 'near bear', which might be more fimilar with some!
9.15.2009 10:23pm
Leo Marvin (mail):
Panglossian Necessitarianism is my benchmark for obscure.
9.15.2009 10:24pm
Houston Lawyer:
I am familiar with the phrase and approve of its usage. It is a phrase whose usage, if not familiar, is easily discernable. However, I tend to like obscure language, so maybe I'm not the best judge.

I haven't heard the term "small potatoes" in a long time.
9.15.2009 10:33pm
Dave N (mail):
drunkdriver wrote:
I've seen it used occasionally. I like it, but then I like the occasional old-school phrase.
I would expect anyone calling himself "drunkdriver" to like the phrase "small beer." :-)
9.15.2009 10:34pm
Cornellian (mail):
I've heard "small beer" and "small potatoes" but only rarely. I think they're too obscure and possibly too colloquial to use in formal writing.
9.15.2009 10:35pm
Randy R. (mail):
I've heard Baby Beer for the low alcohol content ones.
9.15.2009 10:44pm
Bobolinq (mail):
"Small beer" is antiquarian but comprehensible. If you want to sound like you wear a bow tie, use it. If you want to sound like you wear a regular tie, don't use it.
9.15.2009 10:48pm
sendamv:


Common enough in /The Economist/.
9.15.2009 10:53pm
Dave Riggs (mail):
Small beer goes back, at least, the the Germanies in the early 1600s, where it referred to the low alcohol every-day beer drunk in place of the local water. Sortta like wine in biblical times. I think the term referred to the way the beer was produced, as second ot third runs off a batch of mash. Benjamin Franklin's autobiography refers to small beer, Ken Folett makes use of it in Pillars Of The Earth, ands there are numerous othere historical and literary references. NOT the same as small potatoes as an expression of size or value.
9.15.2009 10:54pm
David McCourt (mail):
"I think they're too obscure and possibly too colloquial to use in formal writing."


"Small beer" may be colloquial, but that may be an additional reason -- apart from its clear and pungent expression of an idea -- to use it in legal writing, which needs all the enlivening it can get.

Can academic writing ever be too obscure? Entire English departments have received tenure based on the importation of pointlessly obscure terms from French philosophy into the study of literature.
9.15.2009 10:56pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
Not only am I familiar with 'small beer', I use it conversationally, as well as 'small potatoes'. It was a perfectly ordinary phrase in my part of New England.

I've never come across 'small beans' until here, though.

I have heard 'small beer' used as a synonym of 'near beer' and 'baby beer'.

I'd consider 'small beer' to be perfectly ordinary vocabulary.
9.15.2009 10:57pm
Owen H. (mail):
Small Beer refers to a low-alcohol and low quality brew made from the second runnings (also obsolete as modern brewing does not use the same methods) of a batch, generally given to the servants. It ain't great, but it beats drinking water. It usually would not even be cataloged in a household inventory except to mention that it was made.
9.15.2009 10:59pm
David McCourt (mail):
"NOT the same as small potatoes as an expression of size or value."

But that is exactly how "small beer" is meant, in its metaphorical use (as opposed to its descriptive use regarding an actual beverage). See the quote, above, from Othello, and many other examples.
9.15.2009 11:02pm
Doug Sundseth (mail):
As an editor, I don't find it either exceptional or exceptionable. That said, had your editor made a comment as to the phrase's unfamiliarity to his audience, I probably wouldn't object too strenuously. (That opinion would change if I felt I were typical of the audience in question.)

I do find an editor that doesn't know the phrase a bit problematic, however.
9.15.2009 11:06pm
Bill Dyer (mail) (www):
Small potatoes may or may not have lessened constitutional significance; perhaps the same is true of small beer. From a dissent in a Commerce Clause case -- in which the majority of a Fifth Circuit panel affirmed a district court decision which had struck down a Georgia Department of Agriculture rule which gave preferred positions at a government-sponsored farmers' marketplace to Georgia residents -- comes this blurb:
For the foregoing reasons, I would reverse both holdings of the district court below. With apologies to the district judge for stealing his prose while urging that he be reversed, these potatoes and tomatoes do not rise to constitutional proportions.

Smith v. Dep't of Agriculture, 630 F.2d 1081, 1088 (5th Cir. 1980)(Randall, J., dissenting). This in turn was a play on the district judge's own remarks at the close of the evidentiary hearing:
Well, as I previously noted, what we have involved here is not any effort on the part of one State to prevent citizens of another State from coming into the State. No effort to prevent citizens of another State from doing business in the State. We have not got anything like that. As I said it has been made to appear from some sources that that is what it's all about but that is obviously not what it's all about.... We are just dealing with the way a State decides to regulate the use of the tax supported Farmers Market. That's all we are doing.Of course, it's got to where everything these days rises to constitutional proportions.

Id. at 1087 n.1.
9.15.2009 11:09pm
Teller:
"Small beer" is small beer indeed. (In my experience.)
9.15.2009 11:50pm
Pyrrhus (mail) (www):
I've seen the term used once before. I looked it up at the time but forgot what it meant in the interim.
9.15.2009 11:51pm
~aardvark (mail):

"Small beer" may be colloquial, but that may be an additional reason -- apart from its clear and pungent expression of an idea -- to use it in legal writing, which needs all the enlivening it can get.


This is nonsense! One cannot "enliven" the language by using an obscure, outdated Britishism that more than half the readers will not understand. It's simple enough metaphor, but there are plenty similar ones to choose from without putting on a wig and a Royal accent.
9.15.2009 11:53pm
Andy Bolen (mail):
Never heard it but will definitely be using it now. I think you just brought it back! Culture trickles down from law schools, anyways.
9.15.2009 11:56pm
ennui:
It's kind of annoying how a conspirator asks X, and 4/5 of responses do not answer X but spout stupid crap that the commenter thinks makes them sound somewhat smart.

To answer X, I think "small beer" is obscure; I've never heard it. And I think using it is a bad idea and bad style, even if the reader can "figure it out."
9.16.2009 12:00am
LarryA (mail) (www):
Thanks. I've been looking for a phrase for my fictional sociology prof fiance to use that will start just this sort of argument among his future in-laws.
9.16.2009 12:01am
Tritium (mail):
Actually, I believe the 'small beer' might be spelled 'small bear' today, in referring to Ursa Minor, the constellation that ship captains used to find Polaris &get their bearing. In this case, it would be defined as inconsequential, never straying far from where it began, revolves around a specific/central point.

In another place, they called the same constallation "the plow" and others "Cain" while Ursa Major would have been "Abel". Genesis (as in the bible) is actually Latin for "Constellation in which the sun rises at the time of birth." Gotta love historic reconstruction.
9.16.2009 12:08am
Roguestage:
I'm probably the 20th person to post this, but I've heard the phrase "small beer" as (1) a watered-down or weak version of real beer; (2) watered-down or weak anything-the-phrase-is-applied to. It's sort of like using the phrase "that dog won't hunt" to describe an unavailing argument.

But I would also note that I only know the meaning of the phrase because of my greater-than-average experience with Shakespeare. I'd suggest substituting the phrase "weak tea" for less obscure version of the same phrase, but only if you're worried about your meaning being lost.
9.16.2009 12:10am
CDU (mail) (www):
I have seen the expression used, but I don't think I've ever used it myself.
9.16.2009 12:11am
Californio (mail):
I have heard and used the expression "small beer" numerous times over the years. While it may not be common to everyday readers (perish the thought of someone actually "Reading" everyday) - that does not mean it is of no rhetorical import. I do not know its exact meaning, I only know of its proper use - meaning a situation of little importance or weight.

"I tried to question the debtor about whether she listed a dish worth $2.00 - however the bankruptcy trustee abruptly cut off my questioning and chastised me for wasting her time on small beer."

P.S. perhaps this was too long an explanation - but I guess I went for the belt and suspenders approach.
9.16.2009 12:34am
Fub:
Kenneth Anderson wrote:
Am I right and even if I am, is the phrase nowadays overly obscure?
Yes, I think you are right about its meaning. No, I don't think it overly obscure, or even mildly obscure to anyone reasonably well read in English lit. Others have cited it in Shakespeare and Franklin, as well as in various court decisions.

Ezra Pound used it in the first stanza of Villonaud for This Yule:
TOWARDS the Noel that morte saison
(Christ make the shepherds' homage dear!)
Then when the grey wolves everychone
Drink of the winds their chill small-beer
And lap o' the snows food's gueredon
Then makyth my heart his yule-tide cheer
(Skoal! with the dregs if the clear be gone!)
Wineing the ghosts of yester-year.
9.16.2009 12:35am
Kazinski:
If your educated or a home brewer, then you should know the expression. Small beer is as described above is a low alcohol beer. It was often served at breakfast and to children.
9.16.2009 12:36am
Elmer:
As with many idioms, I recognize and understand it without being able to explain its origins. Until now, of course.
9.16.2009 12:36am
Ak Mike (mail):
CADE

Be brave, then; for your captain is brave, and vows
reformation. There shall be in England seven
halfpenny loaves sold for a penny: the three-hooped
pot; shall have ten hoops and I will make it felony
to drink small beer
: all the realm shall be in
common; and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to
grass: and when I am king, as king I will be,--

ALL

God save your majesty!

CADE

I thank you, good people: there shall be no money;
all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will
apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree
like brothers and worship me their lord.

DICK

The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.

CADE

Nay, that I mean to do. Is not this a lamentable
thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should
be made parchment? that parchment, being scribbled
o'er, should undo a man? Some say the bee stings:
but I say, 'tis the bee's wax; for I did but seal
once to a thing, and I was never mine own man
since.
9.16.2009 12:38am
pgepps (www):
Usage is correct as is. However, popular mass-produced American beers, while watered down, are not "small beer." Small beer was beer which, while producing the familiar carb rush and containing sufficient alcohol to have killed many common contaminants in the water supply, had far too little alcohol to be intoxicating. It was given to children: see Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education I.16, which suggests that only small beer and bread be given to young children during their period of tutelage. [ Locke on Education at Fordham's Modern Hisotry Sourcebook ]
9.16.2009 12:44am
Stormy Dragon (mail) (www):
Small beer was a crude form of (usually unfiltered) beer with a very low alchol content that was originally consumed because, before modern water treatment, it was safer to drink than plain water rather than for purposes of intoxication.
9.16.2009 1:02am
Donald Clarke (www):
Leo Marvin got it right: not common, but not obscure (as is shown in an admittedly unscientific way by the number of commenters who are familiar with it). Those who haven't heard it can certainly figure it out, and their vocabulary will have been enriched.
9.16.2009 1:26am
Curt Fischer:

ennui: It's kind of annoying how a conspirator asks X, and 4/5 of responses do not answer X but spout stupid crap that the commenter thinks makes them sound somewhat smart.


I see you are OK with responses that answer X and spout stupid crap that the commenter thinks makes them sound somewhat smart.
9.16.2009 1:37am
dearieme:
In my father's Scottish boarding school in the 1920s, at morning break the boys had a choice of milk or small beer.
9.16.2009 7:11am
comment reviewer:
I believe they're called micro brews nowadays, not small beers.
9.16.2009 7:11am
Bob_R (mail):
I've used it on occasion. Don't know where I picked it up. Read a lot of Brit mystery novels when I was growing up.
9.16.2009 8:29am
CTCV (mail):
Not to stray off topic, but some small beers are quite good. Those on the west coast may see Anchor Small in the markets on occasion. Home brewers may try a small recipe after mashing a stout or porter. When I read the post, I immediately thought of brewing two beers from a single mash.
9.16.2009 9:09am
sk (mail):
I've never heard of it, and am fairly well read. However, its pretty easy to understand in context.

Sk
9.16.2009 9:21am
Tracy Johnson (www):
I suspect someone who: 1) ran across "small beans" in print or a manuscript, 2) couldn't SPELL or READ, 3) then MISINTERPRETED the phrase to his liking. Finally 4) REPEATED the wrong phrase until it took a life of it's own.
9.16.2009 9:26am
guest:
small beer = weak tea?
9.16.2009 9:47am
JohnEMack (mail):
Summit Brewing Company of St. Paul, Minnesota actually brewed Small Beer as a specialty beer several years ago. One of your readers is correct -- it is a second fermentation on a stronger initial beer and was quit low in alcohol content -- I believe under 3.2% alcohol. It was not very popular and was soon discontinued.
9.16.2009 9:54am
KenB (mail):
Given this stimulating this stimulating discussion, I searched Westlaw's Texas cases for "small potatoes" and "small beer."

I found only one case using the term "small potatoes": Wolfe v. Shellist, 2001 WL 1587348 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2001) That usage was metaphorical.

I found 10 cases using the term "small beer," but they all used it to refer to a beverage. I saw no metaphorical use.
9.16.2009 10:18am
catullus:
Samll beer is a familiar expression to anybody who reads widely.
9.16.2009 10:33am
Scape:
I've heard and used "small beer" and "small beans" all my life, and was unaware they were not common expressions -- actually, small beans is much more frequent, to me, but now I'm going to have to catch myself from saying it because it seems it's not nearly as universal as I thought.

Tracy Johnson, I actually sort of suspect "beans" was a deliberate modification, to make the phrase more appropriate around younger users. Given that I grew up among baptists, that'd be my guess, anyway.
9.16.2009 10:34am
Smallholder (mail) (www):
I say leave it in.

An educated reader is likely to have come across the phrase and understand you. I assume that work on international policy isn't being written for the provincial set.

More importantly, lovely language is an end in and of itself.
9.16.2009 10:56am
David McCourt (mail):
"This is nonsense! One cannot "enliven" the language by using an obscure, outdated Britishism that more than half the readers will not understand. It's simple enough metaphor, but there are plenty similar ones to choose from without putting on a wig and a Royal accent."

Well aadvark, it all depends, doesn't it? You've apparently never encountered the expression, so it is obscure and outdated -- and probably foreign (though one can find almost as many American instances of its use in print as there are British). But from the evidence above, to many it is a well-known, if not exactly common, turn of phrase.

I would be reluctant to think that just because I haven't heard an expression before, or haven't read enough to encounter it, that its use is inadvisable. How would I broaden my understanding of the language, or the world? More to the point, how would you?

By the way, I don't think an expression deriving from the brewery would have upper class origins, or require that one put on an aristocratic accent, which is what I assume you mean by the term -- obscure? outdated? British? made up? -- "Royal accent."
9.16.2009 11:00am
~aardvark (mail):
McCourt--There is a vast difference between understanding the meaning of an expression, knowing its history and actually using it. It is not in common usage and the only reason to use it to "enliven" legalese would be introduce some sense of common speech to the text. If the expression is not in common use, it defeats the purpose. In this sense, it is obscure.

Outdated? When was the last time you heard of anyone talking about actual small beer or, worse yet, serving it? If it's not in use and it was in the past, it is outdated. If I wanted to make a stronger statement, I would have said "archaic". But, since it's still occasionally in use, outdated is perfectly appropriate. "Archaic" implies that it can only be found in old texts (where old can range form 20 to 600 years or more), such as Shakespeare.

And look carefully at what I wrote. It's quite obvious that 1) a large number of readers would not understand the reference or would have to interpret it on the fly because they never heard of it, 2) even among those who commented that they are familiar with the expression here many suggested that they probably got it from reading British novels. That seems to suggest that "Britishism" is a perfectly reasonable way to describe it. I did not say "British" and I did not say "made up". Please, stop arguing with a straw man!

As for the Royal accent, it was meant in jest--perhaps sarcasm escapes you, I don't know. I am thinking of the likes of William F. Buckley who went to great length to sound intellectual by faking a British accent. For someone who wants to sound educated, putting on a British accent while using blue-collar idioms would be perfectly fitting.

The point of the editorial correction was clarity. I agree with the comment that it should be alarming if the editor have not heard of the expression at all or was unable to understand the point. But the correction is justified by the expression itself, not by editorial ignorance. As an editor, I like would have recommended avoiding it--precisely on the grounds I stated. And I edit nonfiction--not law reviews--for a living.
9.16.2009 11:40am
RichW (mail):
"The tradition of brewing two distinct beers from one mash has existed for thousands of years, and for centuries the term "small beer" was used in English to describe the lighter and weaker second beer. By association, the term came to mean something of little importance."

from: http://www.anchorbrewing.com/beers/smallbeer.htm

I do remember my father using this expression when I was a child (long time ago) and everyone knew what it meant. "Small potatoes" was the other common term at the time. I do seem to remember it, small beer, being used by my Scottish relatives referring to the beer that they had instead of water. In many of the cities the water was not very good and so they drank that instead, even the small children.
9.16.2009 11:42am
Sparky:
Blog commenters are hardly a representative sample.

So I did a search on Google News.

I got 60 results using "small beer" in this sense (i.e., not referencing a "small beer garden," or some such).

Most of them were British, Aussie, or Kiwi, including the London Times and the Telegraph. However, I also got hits in the Louisville Courier Journal. the Chicago Journal, and Mother Jones ("Have our politics gotten so nasty that calling the president a liar before congress is just so much small beer?").

So I say it's in common usage and you need a better editor.

P.S. Apparently there is also a published named Small Beer Press.
9.16.2009 11:53am
Sparky:
published publisher
9.16.2009 11:54am
yankev (mail):
See also Herny IV part 2, Act II Scene 2.
9.16.2009 11:56am
Vader:
I've heard the expression before. Perhaps your editor needs to get out more.

But then I like playing with language. [i]De gustibus non disputandem est.[/i]
9.16.2009 12:10pm
David McCourt (mail):
"and I did not say 'made up'. Please, stop arguing with a straw man!"

Aardvark, kindly hold the exclamation points; they add neither information nor clarity. As an editor you should know that.

I think your contention that the expresssion "small beer" is obscure is factually incorrect, and evidence to back that up keeps arriving in this thread every few minutes.

I don't claim you said "made up." I said "made up" -- meaning that your term "Royal accent" is one that you made up. There are U and non-U accents in Britain, as well as regional accents, but the royals don't have their own.

Nor did Buckley "fake" a "British [you mean English] accent" -- though he did attend school there as a boy. He had the sort of mid- or trans-Atlantic accent that many privately or prep school educated Americans -- think FDR, or George Plimpton -- had in the 20th century.

Excising every colorful expression on the grounds that some person, not well read, will fail to understand it is not editing, but a kind of bowdlerizing, and leads to a narrowing and dumbing down of the language. Perhaps this is why written English from 100 years ago is so often more vivid, direct and particular, and less abstact, pompous and dull than contemporary English.
9.16.2009 12:26pm
Bryce (mail):
The phrase came up on my word of the day email from dictionary.com a few months back, so it's at least that current.
9.16.2009 12:44pm
pgepps (www):
I just want to congratulate David McCourt on his use of "bowdlerizing," and censure Tracy Johnson for his comment in ignorance alike of the facts and the thread. There are plenty of attestations of usage just on this page, and excellent historical references linked.
9.16.2009 1:24pm
Hedberg:
I doubt that the term came from "small bear." More likely it's from "small bier," from a description of Napoleon's funeral.
9.16.2009 2:20pm
ChrisTS (mail):
David McCourt:
Entire English departments have received tenure based on the importation of pointlessly obscure terms from French philosophy into the study of literature.

Possibly not the best way to recommend usage of an unusual term. :-)
9.16.2009 3:34pm
ChrisTS (mail):
I certainly have heard the phrase used both to refer to a low alchohol beer and to suggest something weak or inconsequential. I assumed the second usage was derivative from the first.

If you want to plumb the depths of editorial wisdom, here's an example: an editor recently circled the term 'sinecure' in a piece of mine and asked if I had meant 'sine qua non.'
9.16.2009 3:37pm
David McCourt (mail):
That's just the old editorial je ne sais quoi.
9.16.2009 4:04pm
Bruce:
"Involved directly"? Shouldn't that be "directly involved"?
9.16.2009 4:11pm
David McCourt (mail):
"When the questions of war and peace were on the table in ways that involved directly the world's great powers . . . ."

Bruce, directly involved sounds better and more natural -- unless one of the great powers is Germany.

"On the table" is almost as colloquial as "small beer."
9.16.2009 4:36pm
~aardvark (mail):

There are U and non-U accents in Britain, as well as regional accents, but the royals don't have their own.


There are also rhotic and non-rhotic accents, but it's not relevant to what I said--see the point about sarcasm above.


He had the sort of mid- or trans-Atlantic accent that many privately or prep school educated Americans -- think FDR, or George Plimpton -- had in the 20th century.


You are so right--it's not a fake accent. It is a faux accent. But "trans-Atlantic"? Whatever do you mean?


Perhaps this is why written English from 100 years ago is so often more vivid, direct and particular, and less abstact, pompous and dull than contemporary English.


This is blatant revisionism, but it's not surprising--every generation laments the moral, intellectual and verbal decline in their young. Better still, they hold those who preceded them in highest esteem--even though, in their youth, they mocked them as stilted and obsolete.

Language evolves over time and it no more "vivid, direct" or "less abstract, pompous and dull" a hundred years ago than it is today. There were writers with good skills back then and there are now--the difference might well be in what we may accept for passable language in the writing professions today
compared to what the public would have held in high regard then. But there are two reasons for such perceptions--the fact that we have many more slots to fill in professions that involve a significant writing component (such as print journalists and pundits) and the natural long-term filter that has not eliminated the bulk of the junk that we see every day. There was plenty of awful writing at the turn of the XIXth century, but most of it did not survive for obvious reasons. In a hundred years, the next generation of McCourts will whining incessantly about the degeneration of the written language of their grandparents--no doubt a direct consequence of the trend that we observe today.

And ChrisTS has already taken care of the other bit:

Entire English departments have received tenure based on the importation of pointlessly obscure terms from French philosophy into the study of literature.
9.16.2009 5:04pm
ChrisTS (mail):
~aardvark:

I'm fairly sure David McCourt had tongue firmly in cheek with the remark about English professors and French philosophy. I was just picking up on his joke.
9.16.2009 5:24pm
ChrisTS (mail):
Bruce and David:

I have a tendency to split infinitives, though I try to restrain myself to occasions on which not splitting produces semantically odd implications. 'Involved directly' is both 'correct' and, to my ear, comfortable.
9.16.2009 5:27pm
Bruce:
ChrisTS, it sounds jarring to me. Also, there's no infinitive involved. It sounds as though "directly" is modifying "the world's great powers," which doesn't make much sense.
9.16.2009 5:44pm
ChrisTS (mail):
Bruce:

I think we can assume that the 'sound' question is relatively subjective. I see your reading, and this may be one of those cases which I referred to as making semantic trouble. I'm not persuaded, as I do not see how the adverb could be modifying the noun phrase.

AFAIK from my years in teaching, 'splitting an infinitive' does not require the use of an infinitive as such (to involve). It just means inserting the adverb between the noun and the verb in any case (it directly involves).
9.16.2009 6:26pm
WlmLS (mail):
Colloquial? Why would anyone not know what small beer is. (Note tense)
As for the Separist Puritans which are better known as Pilgrims, "The Puritans loaded more beer than water onto the Mayflower before they cast off for the New World." according to Royce, James E. Alcohol Problems: A Comprehensive Survey. New York: Free Press, 1981, 38
9.16.2009 6:47pm
~aardvark (mail):

I'm fairly sure David McCourt had tongue firmly in cheek with the remark about English professors and French philosophy. I was just picking up on his joke.


I have no doubt that McCourt had his tongue planted firmly between the cheeks at all times.

In case you did not notice, I take neither McCourt nor the entire thread as seriously as he does.
9.16.2009 6:59pm
~aardvark (mail):
Follow-up on the preceding post:

One would have thought "putting on a wig and a Royal accent" made that obvious.
9.16.2009 7:00pm
David McCourt (mail):
"In case you did not notice, I take neither McCourt nor the entire thread as seriously as he does."

"McCourt" here. Gee, then why do you sound so angry, Mr. vark? From your first words here -- "This is nonsense!" -- you sound like you woke up on the wrong side of the thread. Relax, stop scaring yourself by talking about "the next generation of McCourts," and perhaps you'll be able to resist accusing someone who disagrees with you of having a "tongue planted firmly between the cheeks." Dirty talk beats conceding that perhaps "small beer" is not so obscure, I suppose.
9.16.2009 7:22pm
~aardvark (mail):
Aha! It can get sarcasm! Actually, it's Mr. ~ to you.

Well, good for you. I am not angry in the slightest. Next time read what I write, not what you think I should not have written.
9.16.2009 9:22pm
Dennis Nicholls (mail):
To me "small beer" is a relatively common expression that's an English translation of "de minimus" (i.e. trivia).
9.16.2009 9:32pm
devil's advocate (mail):

I believe they're called micro brews nowadays, not small beers.


Although I think this was intended as a joke, it does reveal how the phrase can be misconstrued. But that isn't an excuse for not using it.


Not only am I familiar with 'small beer', I use it conversationally, as well as 'small potatoes'. It was a perfectly ordinary phrase in my part of New England.


I never heard it used although I hear small potatoes regularly. so much for my [smal] part of New England, i.e. Rhode Island. Having experience the service of beer in Germany by "ein mass", a liter glass, I imagined that "small beer" was relatively literal terminology, albeit the context gave it meaning. Personally I like writing that stretches my vocabulary, rather than takes the LCD approach.


The phrase came up on my word of the day email from dictionary.com a few months back, so it's at least that current.


More to the point, Random House and the American Heritage Dictionary both have definitions for "small beer" as a compound noun. To me that settles it, although I think the definitions are kind of lazy, e.g., "synonym for small potatoes".

I think the whole point of the different phrase is a slightly different meaning, albeit oft conflated. My stab at it (no reference intended to Eugene's thread on swords for self defense): useful in context but not the force majeure (which, incidently is not listed as a compound noun in the dictionaries that list "small beer", go figure).

After all, if small beer kept diarrhea at bay throughout medieval times, it is hard to think of it as small potatoes.

Maybe the bard didn't have digestive problems as he loved to use the reference derisively. Many citations already, but must revisit the use by his proto-Jacobin, Jack Cade, declaring in what is surely a parody of The Complaint of the Poor Commons of Kent (and quoted above by AK MIKE):


CADE Be brave, then; for your captain is brave, and vows
reformation. There shall be in England seven
halfpenny loaves sold for a penny: the three-hooped pot; shall have ten hoops and I will make it felony to drink small beer: all the realm shall be in
common; and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to
grass: and when I am king, as king I will be,--
ALL God save your majesty!
CADE I thank you, good people: there shall be no money;
all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will
apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree
like brothers and worship me their lord.
DICK The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.


Seems Shakespeare was making a farce of Cade's revolution and thus his reference to its targets as all the lawyers is ambiguous -- as much an implict criticism of anti-intellectualism as an explict criticism of attorneys.

Burke would later be similarly conflicted in describing their ranks:


Judge, Sir, of my surprize, when I found that a very great proportion of the Assembly (a majority, I believe of the members who attended) was composed of practitioners in the law. It was composed not of distinguished magistrates, who had given pledges to their country of their science, prudence, and integrity; not of leading advocates,the glory of the bar; not of renowned professors in universities; -- but for the far greater part, as it must in such a number, of the inferior, unlearned, mechanical, merely instrumental members of the profession. There were distinguished exceptions; but the general composition was of obscure provincial advocates, of stewards of petty local jursidictions, country attornies, notaries, and the whole train of the ministers of municipal litigation, the fomentors and conductors of the petty war of village vexation.


Indeed he might have said the small beer of attorneys.


It's kind of annoying how a conspirator asks X, and 4/5 of responses do not answer X but spout stupid crap that the commenter thinks makes them sound somewhat smart.

Guilty as charged and lovin' it.

Brian
9.16.2009 9:50pm
Milhouse (www):
"Small beer", "small potatoes", "weak tea"; nobody's yet mentioned "thin gruel". On the other hand, I'd never heard of "small beans" before.
9.17.2009 1:28am
~aardvark (mail):
What amazes me here is that people who argue that there is nothing wrong with using the phrase in print are completely missing the point. Although a large number of comments claim that 1) they are familiar with the phrase or 2) they think they can figure out the meaning of the phrase without knowing its origin, there is a big problem--the majority of interpretations here do not use the correct metaphor, essentially creating a new one. This is precisely the problem with using an obscure phrase--it doesn't just allow but forces many readers into making up their own interpretation, which is not something you want in a review article. So the recommendation is really simple--forget the "vivid language" and stick with something your readers will understand, irrespectively of what you think of the ignorance of the editor.
9.17.2009 7:33am
David McCourt (mail):
"Aha! It can get sarcasm! Actually, it's Mr. ~ to you."
This is sarcasm, aardvark? Calling someone "it'? "Tongue between the cheeks"? This is simple abuse, sans wit, sans class, sans all. Editor, edit thyself.
I'd love to stay and chat with you, aardvark, but I've had my fill of small beer.
9.17.2009 8:17am
Gavin Grant (mail) (www):
Well that was one of the more enjoyable discussions I've read for a while. And, you've collected in one place all the Shakespearean references that I've been meaning to collect and post on our site.

About UK vs. US usage: how about George Washington's recipe "To Make Small Beer" in the NY Public Library.
9.17.2009 2:23pm
ChrisTS (mail):
I've had my fill of small beer.

Time for vodka, for me.
9.17.2009 5:21pm
JohnKT (mail):
The OED says small beer means weak beer.

The term does not strike me as archaic or foreign or otherwise inadvisable. By all means, use it.

The editor in question should learn to use the OED.
9.18.2009 11:55am

Post as: [Register] [Log In]

Account:
Password:
Remember info?

If you have a comment about spelling, typos, or format errors, please e-mail the poster directly rather than posting a comment.

Comment Policy: We reserve the right to edit or delete comments, and in extreme cases to ban commenters, at our discretion. Comments must be relevant and civil (and, especially, free of name-calling). We think of comment threads like dinner parties at our homes. If you make the party unpleasant for us or for others, we'd rather you went elsewhere. We're happy to see a wide range of viewpoints, but we want all of them to be expressed as politely as possible.

We realize that such a comment policy can never be evenly enforced, because we can't possibly monitor every comment equally well. Hundreds of comments are posted every day here, and we don't read them all. Those we read, we read with different degrees of attention, and in different moods. We try to be fair, but we make no promises.

And remember, it's a big Internet. If you think we were mistaken in removing your post (or, in extreme cases, in removing you) -- or if you prefer a more free-for-all approach -- there are surely plenty of ways you can still get your views out.