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Small beer
Posted: 27 March 2017 06:01 PM   [ Ignore ]
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I just encountered this expression in Shakespeare’s Othello:  “ To suckle fools and chronicle small beer.” I thought it was an archaic expression, but apparently it isn’t.

It is defined in my book’s glossary section as: “ ‘small beer’ small accounts, trifles…” and in the OED:

1.  Beer of a weak, poor, or inferior quality. Now hist.
2.  2. In extended use.

a. Trivial occupations, affairs, etc.; matters or persons of little or no consequence or importance; trifles.
[a1616 Shakespeare Othello (1622) ii. i. 163 To suckle fooles, and chronicle small Beere. 

1992 Economist 18 Jan. 59/2 The Kyowa affair promises to be small beer alongside yet another political scandal now brewing.

2010 M. Bovens et al. in M. Bovens et al. Real World EU Accountability i. 3 The Commission fined Microsoft €899 million… Small beer, some would say. But it sent a strong signal.

Bold emphasis mine

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Posted: 27 March 2017 09:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I would use small beer myself, but then much of my language is archaic!

I’m just surprised by the OED definition. Small beer was weak, by definition, but not necessarily ‘poor’ or ‘inferior’. It was made by adding more water to the mash with which you had just made a barrel of strong beer, and brewing it again. There was just enough yeast, sugar and flavour left in the mash to ferment into a mild-tasting, weak brew. It wouldn’t get you drunk, and wasn’t meant to; and unlike strong beer it didn’t contain much nutrition. What, crucially, it also didn’t contain was bacteria; the fermentation killed off any nasties in the water and made your beer safe to drink. So for the many centuries when you couldn’t be confident that your water supply wouldn’t kill you, small beer was the thing to drink to quench your thirst, for adults and children alike. My grandfather was given small beer at his school for that reason in the 1880s.

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Posted: 27 March 2017 10:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Syntinen Laulu - 27 March 2017 09:26 PM

I would use small beer myself, but then much of my language is archaic!

I’m just surprised by the OED definition. Small beer was weak, by definition, but not necessarily ‘poor’ or ‘inferior’. It was made by adding more water to the mash with which you had just made a barrel of strong beer, and brewing it again. There was just enough yeast, sugar and flavour left in the mash to ferment into a mild-tasting, weak brew. It wouldn’t get you drunk, and wasn’t meant to; and unlike strong beer it didn’t contain much nutrition. What, crucially, it also didn’t contain was bacteria; the fermentation killed off any nasties in the water and made your beer safe to drink. So for the many centuries when you couldn’t be confident that your water supply wouldn’t kill you, small beer was the thing to drink to quench your thirst, for adults and children alike. My grandfather was given small beer at his school for that reason in the 1880s.

Thank you for that information, very interesting.

I don’t recall ever encountering the expression until yesterday while I was reading Othello. I certainly never would have deciphered its second meaning, relating to trifles and trivial occupations, as it was used in Shakespeare’s tragedy.

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Posted: 28 March 2017 01:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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I’ve heard it, from older British people.

Seems to be a live phrase, going by the English newspapers.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2017/03/10/ifs-business-rates-relief-small-beer/

Government measures to ease the burden of business rates are “small beer” and will do nothing to prevent future bill shocks, according to a leading think-tank.

https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2017/03/david-camerons-larynx-joins-labour-party/

A sum of £4 a month seems small beer for the chance to help change the direction of a party

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Posted: 28 March 2017 02:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Thank you for that information, very interesting.

Hear, hear!

P. O’Brian mentions crews occasionally drinking small beer (never with any great enthusiasm).  I had never thought of the health aspect.  What a sensible idea.

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Posted: 28 March 2017 08:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I saw it in yesterday’s Evening Standard. Probably wouldn’t have remembered it if not for this thread. I’ll edit in the reference later if I can be bothered to try to find it again.

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Posted: 28 March 2017 11:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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P. O’Brian mentions crews occasionally drinking small beer (never with any great enthusiasm).

Well, naturally: the British sailor (and soldier too) has never drunk any not-strongly-alcoholic beverage with great enthusiasm!

Even the watering down of the half-pint ration of 100%-proof (57% alcohol) rum into grog was bitterly resented when first ordered by Admiral Vernon. Eighteenth-century Englishmen had convinced themselves that strong drink not only tasted and felt good but was positively healthful. They keenly circulated cautionary tales such as the tragic end in 1764 of Thomas Thetcher of the Hampshire Militia, whose epitaph, on the headstone paid for by his comrades, can still be read in the graveyard of Winchester Cathedral:

Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier,
Who caught his death by drinking cold small Beer,
Soldiers be wise from his untimely fall
And when ye’re hot drink Strong or none at all.

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Posted: 13 April 2017 11:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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I’ve occasionally used small beer throughout my life and also small potatoes which means the same thing. I also remember reading a deliberately misleading article that said that medieval monks drank many pints of beer every day, the implication being that they were drunk all the time. As shown above, it was small beer everyone drank to avoid cholera, dysentery, etc. without knowing why it prevented them. In France many drink biere de table with meals which has the same negligible alcoholic content. It’s impossible to get hammered on however much you drink (I know because I tried, before learning the ALC VOL percentage labelling system!) When I was there we used to call it gnats’ or gnat’s piss (it was only ever vocalised) though some say gnat piss. There must be other slang terms meaning the same thing…

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Posted: 13 April 2017 03:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I felt sure Shakespeare had used it elsewhere and the Shakespeare Concordance confirms it.

Jack Cade uses the phrase when inciting the mob to rebellion in Henry VI Part 2 and Prince Hal speaks of it when speaking to Poins in Henry IV Part 2.

Cade: 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 ....

Prince Hal: Belike then my appetite was not-princely got; for, by my troth, I do now remember the poor creature, small beer.

Very common in fact with all English writers up to the present day, as shown in posts above.

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Posted: 13 April 2017 04:07 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I’m reminded of a post I did asking about “small clothes” and so I’m curious if there are other common “small” things in Britain? I can’t think of small being used in such a way in the US.

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Posted: 13 April 2017 11:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Small arms

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Posted: 14 April 2017 02:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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lionello - 13 April 2017 11:44 PM

Small arms

Small arms are literally small; rifles, pistols and the like, as opposed to cannons.

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Posted: 14 April 2017 03:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Yes. So are “small clothes” --- undershirts and underpants as opposed to shirts and trousers.

In any case, I was referring to Munchkin limbs, not to pistols :-)

[ Edited: 14 April 2017 03:09 AM by lionello ]
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Posted: 14 April 2017 04:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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While familiar with the figurative uses of the term small beer, I had no idea it referred to weak beer until reading this thread. I had assumed it just meant a smaller quantity, like a half-pint. I’ve never heard small beer being used literally to refer to a weak brew here in Leftpondia.

Instead, I have always heard three-two beer, referring to beer with 3.2% alcohol or less. It’s very difficult to get drunk on the stuff, and in some states, it is (was?) legal to sell three-two beer to minors.

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Posted: 14 April 2017 05:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Enough of this small talk :-)

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Posted: 14 April 2017 04:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Off-hand the only similar phrase that comes to mind, with small signifying weak as in the beer usage, is small-voiced. Is that not current in the US?

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