A Little Off

Not too long ago I noticed an alarming amount of random words used for small measurements.  I also realized that we use them all the time but nobody seems to know where they came from or how they ended up in our daily speech.  So I did some reasearch and decided to share my findings with you.


First up is a “tad”.  The tad measurement has perplexed many linguists.  Most assume it’s a singular word when it is, in fact, a shortened form of the word “tadpole”.  When American settlers first decided to build homes in Louisiana, they were forced to build on marshlands with crude tools.  Lacking rulers they used many common items and animals around them to dictate length.  It was not an exact measurement, but the average tadpole is approximately half an inch long.  When using a “tad” to measure volume, it means something about the size and weight of a tadpole. Some other measurements from Louisiana they used that did not catch on include a gator tooth, an elm leaf and a bucket o’ swamp water.


When someone asks you for a “bit” of something, they probably don’t know exactly what they’re asking for.  Unbeknownst by most (because it mostly isn’t true), the bit did not always reference a very small portion of something.  The bit measurement comes from a horse bit which holds the reins in a horse’s mouth.  Back then, the average horse bit was a cylinder about 5 or 6 inches long and half an inch in diameter.  They have since been modernized and PETAfied to be thin pieces of metal with hinges on the edges to allow more comfort for the horse.  But the next time someone asks you for a “bit of salt”, don’t let them get mad at you for dumping about 4 ounces of it on their green beans.  They got what they asked for.

Oh, and the “little bit” is, obviously, the bit used by a Shetland Pony.


Smidgen comes to us, like so many words, as a contraction gone awry.  The correct spelling is Sm’idgeon.  It’s a combination of the words Small and Pigeon.  I know, I was surprised too.  But this does explain why you mostly hear the word smidgen in reference to food.  As with the bit measurement, a sm’idgeon was also originally a lot bigger before being adapted into modern dialects.  I, however, still put a sm’idgeon of butter on my popcorn.

Yes, I know a few quick google searches would give me the true etymology of these words and phrases.  But I am of the mind that it’s just way more fun to just make stuff up.

– J


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9 Responses to “A Little Off”

  1. missywilky Says:

    what a bummer. a gator-tooth worth of something woulda been fun.

    “cream and sugar with your coffee?”
    “just a gator-tooth.”

  2. TexanNewYorker Says:

    Next up: please explain a “scoche” (is there really a proper spelling for that?); a “dab”; and a “dollop”. If you’re feeling ambitious you could also explain “blurb”.

    tee hee.

    • J Says:

      it’s funny you mention scoche. I started research on that but had a very difficult time finding any details on it (mostly because it doesn’t sound like any other word right off the top of my head). I’ll look into dab and dollop and get back to you…

      my relationship with ambition has not been that great lately. i’ll see if i can patch things up and make a blurb about blurbs.

  3. Popgun Says:

    How about Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny (as in Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini)?

    How many of you young people recognize the reference?

    Also, how about units of force, like the ‘nudge’ vs the ‘whack’?


  4. TexanNewYorker Says:

    Units of force would also be interesting. Oh, and Popgun, I get the reference; but these days my generation might still know a few lines of the song from a Yoplait yogurt commercial a few years back.

  5. Ali Says:

    TNY–Ditto the Yoplait commercial, and wasn’t it also in the Revenge of the Nerds movies? Or was that the Flying Purple People Eater?

    Not a unit of measurement, J. . . but “scootch” always confused me–“Scootch over and let her sit down!”

  6. Popgun Says:

    Hi, Ali;

    Scootch is probably a bastardization of Scoot. Just guessing.

    “Scootch over a tad, so I can sit down”. So, scootch can have units like the tad. Hmmm. Somebody should write a book.


  7. Ali Says:

    Popgun, I agree entirely.


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