Thursday, May 1, 2014

Random thoughts on 'Every little helps'

Recently The Guardian published an article on 'The Bad Grammar Awards', something guaranteed to bring the peevers out of the woodwork. One commenter wrote 'What about "every little helps"? That's not grammatical either.'
"Every little helps" is the current slogan of Tescos, Britain's biggest supermarket chain, and no doubt the commenter thought it was just another example of corporations playing free and easy with the English language, like McDonald's famous 'I'm lovin it' or the daddy of them all - 'Winston tastes like a cigarette should'.
Tescos' slogan had never particularly bothered me, perhaps because I had a funny feeling that this expression had been around rather longer than since Tescos started using it.
Admittedly it's rather difficult to analyse grammatically. Yes, you can have a little, but that's usually considered a pronoun rather than a noun, and you can't have two littles, so can you have every little? I suppose if I'd thought about it I would have seen it as an ellipsis of 'Every little bit counts'.
Let's imagine, however, that rather than a modern advertising slogan 'every little helps' was an old idiom or proverb; would people really be worrying about its grammaticality then, I wonder?

Well it's certainly old, as this Ngram graph shows, and has been rather more common in British books than in American ones since the beginning of the twentieth century.

At Google Books

Apparently, the Oxford English Dictionary puts the earliest citation as 1791, from John O'Keefe's play, Wild Oats. Here it is from a 1793 edition:

Wild Oats, John O'Keeffe, Dublin 1793

But we can do rather better than that. This is from 1742:

Some Impartial Thoughts on the Wollen Manufacturies, George Andrew Patrick BRITON (pseud.), London 1742

And from 1751, we have this rather enigmatic entry from The Midwife, a satirical magazine published by Christopher Smart between 1751 and 1753, writing under the pseudonym of Mary Midnight. The key to the enigma will become a bit clearer in a minute:

The Midwife: or, The Old Woman's Magazine, London 1750

Examples become quite common in late eighteenth century and nineteenth century publications, where it often appears in inverted commas, as if referring to a known idiom or proverb:

The Spirit of the Public Journals, George Cruikshank, Robert Cruikshank, London 1804

Origins and evolution

According to The Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, the expression goes back to a 1590 work by the French writer Gabriel Meurier, and translates as ' "Every little helps", said the ant, pissing in the sea.' All I can find for the original is this, which seems to be missing something at the beginning:
peu ayde, disçoit le formy, pissant en mer en plein midy

Deviz Familiers, Gabriel Meurier 1590

Interesting that French has also undergone some spelling changes since those days. The first English version, cited in George Latimer Apperson's The Dictionary of Proverbs, appeared a few years later in a letter from a certain Philip Gawdy to his brother, with the ant replaced by a wren. Gawdy was apparently a bit prudish when it came to using certain words:
I have often writt, and sent to you, yet neuer had any answer, and take it very unkyndly that you writt it not to me in yowr mans marriage behalfe, bycause the wrenn sayde all helpte when she ... in the sea.

Letters, Philip Gawdy, 1602 Archive.org

Antiquarian and topographer Wiliam Camden had no such qualms:
Every thing helpes quoth the wren when she pist i' the sea.

Remains concerning Britain, William Camden, London 1605/1623 (?) GB 1674

As we've seen, by 1750 it had reached its present form. And we now have some idea of what the 'something' the old woman was doing in the sea was:
Every little helps (as the old Woman said as she did something in the sea).
By 1787 the shorter version of the proverb had reached America:
A guinea is a guinea, and every little helps

Belknap Papers, E Hazard 1787, in Early American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases, Bartlett Jere Whiting GB

And to bring it more a bit more up to date, the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs quotes this line from a book of short stories featuring Rumpole of the Bailey:
'I'll get him to make a few inquiries relative to the bird in question. Every little helps.'

Rumpole and the Age of Miracles (1989), John Mortimer

It didn't exist only in French and English. In Dutch, the expression - alle kleine beetjes helpen (every little bit helps) appears to be quite common, and the Dutch had their own version of the proverb:
“Every little helps to lighten the freight,” said the captain, as he threw his wife overboard.

(Dutch proverb)

Perhaps that's where they got the idea for this CastlemaineXXXX ad.
And every little helps isn't the only expression with this construction:

Every little counts

Wall, maybe I did make a slip of eight or ten cents, and every little counts," replied the other.

The king of the sea: a tale of the fearless and free,
Ned Buntline, Boston 1852 GB

Sometimes it has been a little music, sometimes a little deeper insight into the history of art ; every little counts you know.

Washington square. The pension Beaurepas. A bundle of letters, Volume 2,
Henry James, 1881 GB

Every little makes a mickle

A little in one's own pocket, is better than much in another man's purse, 'Tis good to keep a nest-egg. Every little makes a mickle ; while a man gets he never can lose.

The history of the renowned Don Quixote de la Manha, Volume 3, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Motteux, Ozell, London 1749 GB

for every counsellor has the impost of a certain quantity of wine every year; which though it be no great matter, yet, according to the old saying, every little makes a mickle.

The State Letters of Henry, Earl of Clarendon, Oxford 1763GB

Also make an investment of any spare moneys as may render some usance to the owner ; because, however little, ' every little makes a mickle, ' as we of the north say, with more reason than rhyme.

The Works of Lord Byron (from an unpublished letter dated 1823), London 1842

There is also a variation of this - 'Many a little makes a mickle'
Mickle comes from the Old English micel, mycel "great, intense, big, long, much, many," (Online Etymology Dictionary). But in Scotland, muckle has taken on the meaning of mickle, and mickle has taken on the meaning of little, to give us the Scottish proverb 'Mony a mickle makes a muckle', something similar to 'A penny saved is a penny earned'. (Wiktionary), (The Phrase Finder)

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