Small or smallish?

“The miners all say that it is the coming away after a hard day’s work, that is especially irksome. It is part of their work and they are equal to it, but certainly it is an effort. It is comparable, perhaps, to climbing a smallish mountain before and after your day’s work.”—DOWN THE MINE by George Orwell.

Which mountain do you feel is more irksome, a “small” one or a “smallish” one?
Is a small mountain smaller than a smallish mountain in your mind?

Similar to ‘red-redish’ I think that ‘small’ is smaller than ‘smallish’.
I feel ‘smallish’ like ‘quite small’, ‘not too high’.

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Am I right in thinking that, other things being equal, a smallish mountain is more “irksome” to climb than a small mountain before and after your day’s work?

Yes, I think you are right. It’s more irksome and more tiresome to climb ‘a smallish mountain’ than ‘a small mountain’.

Thank you for your comments, Evgueny40.

The ‘irksome’ seems to refer more to the task of having to make their way home, an irksome effort. Coming away’ is a task they would prefer not having to do, in the same way that before or after work they would not necessarily want to make the effort of climbing a smallish (medium-sized) mountain.

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After a bit of analysis, here is what I came up with: The author could just as well have used “small” as “smallish” here as a description of the size of the mountain. I don’t think it would have changed my perception ;of the size of the mountain or how irksome it was.

What I think is different about the two words in my (almost unconscious) perception, is the importance they give to the mountain. “Smallish” seems to say to me in this context, “This is probably an example, not a real mountain we are talking about here; don’t focus on the actual mountain.” A “small mountain” seems just a bit more “solid”!

If the “smallish mountains” were indeed real mountains, say in the description of scenery, I would take them to be incidental to the scene, not the main point.

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Wow, that is exactly what I thought and almost posted a comment :slight_smile:

I completely agree “smallish” is just to make it a bit fuzzier in a (maybe slightly far-fetched) figure of speech, and that is all the effect that is intended, in my belief.

I doubt there is any difference of magnitude between “small” and “smallish”.

EDIT: but it is also common sense that, generally, anything with “-ish” diminishes its meaning than without it. So accordingly, “smallish” is “less small”, which means bigger, and so more “irksome” to climb.

But, frankly, this is all hair splitting and barking up the wrong tree, in my mind. Too much logic might do more harm than good when applied to figurative or literary expressions.


I imagine that the writer did not want to use the expression “a mountain”, which usually connote largeness. Given that climbing a mountain before and after the day’s work seems unrealistic, he had to choose between “a small mountain” and “a smallish mountain”.

As it is possible for a small mountain to be extremely small, a “smallish” mountain would be a better choice of word.

I was wondering if anyone else would express it that way:)

EDIT: I believe “-ish” means “like” when added to nouns and “somewhat” when added to adjectives.

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“But, frankly, this is all hair splitting and barking up the wrong tree, in my mind. Too much logic might do more harm than good when applied to figurative or literary expressions.”

I don’t dislike “kind” advice of this sort, but I cannot agree with you.
If that excerpt were not from George Orwell’s writing, I would not try to “split hairs”. I tend to think that he used the word he chose because the other words were inappropriate for him to express what was in his mind. I “presuppose” that every word has its own place in the world of meanings in a language.
I am afraid that my response to your advice will not make you understand my point.

I agree that writers like George Orwell probably makes conscious selection of each word he uses. Still it is also likely that there are “don’t care” cases too where there are multiple choices that are equally good.

Between “small” and “smallish”, as I mentioned I believe “smallish” was picked to fuzz the mountain metaphor a bit rather than to make it have a greater effect (more irksome). The difference in magnitude would be really minute if at all, in my perception.

Needless to say, all this is subjective thinking and I could very well be wrong.

I suppose each of us latches onto different things in the text and makes different interpretations per our interests and preferences.

In any case I admire your ability to pay attention to such details :slight_smile:

Thank you for your comment.
We sometimes notice that “common sense” is not so common. If for no other reason than that, posting comments on the forum is meaningful.