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I recently had a debate with a friend about whether "littlest" was a word. I took the stance that it was not. I find now that basically every time I make such a claim these days someone can hold up a phone with some web dictionary "proving me wrong".

My question is: When is it appropriate to use this word as opposed to smallest or some similar option?

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Surely this is the least of your concerns. :) –  tchrist Feb 16 '13 at 15:20
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Yes, it is an adjective synonymous with 'smallest' - there is no right or wrong time to use one vs. the other. Go with whatever sounds best to you in the context. –  mattacular Feb 16 '13 at 15:30
    
'Synonymous' is often a highly questionable descriptor. See at wordwizard.com/phpbb3/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=23633 –  Edwin Ashworth Feb 16 '13 at 22:38
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2 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Littlest is not 'standard', but perfectly acceptable in conversation. What you should be concerned about is that it has overtones of cuteness and childish language - consider The Littlest Mermaid, or Google the word and see the contexts in which it is used.

I think you will usually want to avoid it. However, the same can be said of its 'standard' alternative, least, which is strongly marked for formality. Except in fixed phrases like the least of your concerns or I haven't the least idea, where least is obligatory, practically nobody uses least colloquially to mean the superlative of little (or less for its comparative).

Smallest is safest. Smallest will never make you sound like either a kindergarten teacher or a college English professor emeritus.

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Even there, you have to be careful. I haven't the smallest idea is not a permissible alternative to the fixed phrase you mention - in fact, smallest seems to be used preferentially only when speaking about physical size. –  Edwin Ashworth Feb 17 '13 at 14:45
    
@EdwinAshworth Good point; I too casually assumed that 'fixed' would be understood to imply 'obligatory'. Fixed –  StoneyB Feb 17 '13 at 16:17
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You can safely use littlest when you're talking about Lilliputians (Jonathan Swift's creations in Gulliver's Travels), and the "Little People" (leprechauns) of Irish folklore, and small-minded bluenoses (American Puritans) with with hearts and worldviews as big as the pea that disturbed the fairy-tale princess's sleep.

Little has negative connotations that make it worth using to cut someone down: "You are a little man despite your Gargantuan stature. The littlest man I've ever had the misfortune to meet, in fact."

You can also use it if you're my friend from Texas, who keeps telling me about all the "little tiny towns" he's been to in his home state. One of those towns is surely the "littlest tiny town in Texas". And since you're from Texas too, you probably know which towns he's talking about.

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At least one figure respected by many has used "little" with no pejorative connotation. –  bib Feb 16 '13 at 20:59
    
He spoke in English on this occasion? –  Edwin Ashworth Feb 16 '13 at 22:19
    
I'm not sure I'd use littlest of the wee folk; though it's never occurred to me to have a superlative for them. –  Jon Hanna Feb 17 '13 at 0:32
    
@Jon: Which of the three types of literary wee folk (little people, for those of us who don't regularly use the Scots adjective wee), leprechauns, hobbits, & Lilliputians is the littlest? See also: Wikipedia about a dog on Canadian TV, & the Shirley Temple movie, & a 1955 movie. –  user21497 Feb 17 '13 at 1:05
    
I might use it of hobbits, I suppose. –  Jon Hanna Feb 17 '13 at 1:09
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