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I hear people use it a lot, but I'm not really clear on its meaning. This site says

Wee: Small. Used by every single Northern Irish person. “Have a wee bun”, “Would you like a wee bag?”

And from here:

Have a wee [look] out there an see if ma da's coming

And here's a couple (wee?) examples I remember hearing:

Have a wee seat.
Here's your wee panini.

Substituting small in the examples doesn't really work that well, to my ear.

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    Heh, wee panini. You won't see me ordering that in a deli in NYC (nor would I ask for nor accept a wee bag)! Anyway, little seems to me a perfectly apt substitute in all the example sentences. Perhaps substituting "a bit of a" would work for you? Or is seat throwing you? I interpreted that, in that context, as a synonym for rest ("have a little/short/bit of a rest").
    – Dan Bron
    Apr 14 '16 at 13:00
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    As Dan says, in those contexts it's "a bit of a"; we use the same word a lot in Scotland. It's often used to refer to size but can also be used slightly more abstractly to lessen the emphasis on the thing under discussion. Apr 14 '16 at 13:02
  • Yeah, it's mostly the seat example that doesn't fit. I guess it could mean rest, though.
    – zzxjoanw
    Apr 14 '16 at 13:02
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    It's basically the same as "have a seat" only we put "wee" in there because lol Scottish. It's like a little sit down, a short rest. Apr 14 '16 at 13:03
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    Yes, as mentioned above small is just one facet. It covers one or more of size, modesty or de-emphasis; e.g. in a cafe, the waitress may very well say : "Here's your wee bill, love" as "Here's your bill" would sound very harsh and abrupt.
    – k1eran
    Apr 14 '16 at 14:31
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:) I am not Northern Irish, but am Scottish and we have the same usage. When 'wee' is used for something like 'have a wee seat', it means 'sit down for a short time', 'have a wee look' means 'take a quick glance'. A 'wee panini' is a bit more difficult to explain. My take on it would be that it is a means of adding familiarity to the sentence and is more figurative than literal, but not entirely so (I think people would be unlikely to say 'here's your wee 18 inch pizza' for example.) The meaning is still 'small' but the usage denotes that the panini is being delivered with a modicum of concern and care for the recipient, even if it is formulaic. It hints at a motherly worry that a panini is barely enough sustenance for a growing/working lad/lass. On reflection, this is part of the application of a 'wee seat' as well, it is hospitable and familiar.

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  • It's such a grandmotherly thing, isn't it? Just reminds me of that woman from Chewin' the Fat: "We'll have wee individual trifles!" Apr 14 '16 at 13:10
  • That sounds right for the panini. I think I heard it in a family-owned restaurant, not a franchise.
    – zzxjoanw
    Apr 14 '16 at 13:11
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Although ‘small’ works as a literal synonym for ‘wee’, a closer equivalent in English English real-life usage would be little, which quite often does not primarily refer to size at all.

Where ‘small’ is commonly used informatively for technical distinction (small, medium, large), ‘little’ can, by comparison, indicate some degree of sentimentality. (This is not a hard-and-fast distinction of usage: In the TV series Clangers, Small Clanger is the young son of the family, but affectionate big brother to his sister Tiny Clanger.)

Broadly speaking and by comparison, however, ‘little’ can often connote things like daintiness, delicacy or fondness. If I refer to my little idea, I mean something that I care about more than others might. If I talk about having written my little book (which might in fact be huge, physically), I mean that I am proud of it but I don’t assume that you will be impressed. The term ‘wee’ is often used similarly, although equally it can also simply mean literally ‘small’.

‘Have a wee seat’ could be smoothly rephrased in England as ‘have a little rest’. (‘Small’ would sound really odd in that sentence.) The wee-ness is something to do with being personally concerned for you. We might also say, ‘Have a quick break,’ but by comparison that would be relatively pragmatic.

‘Here’s your wee panini’ means something along the lines of ‘Here’s the panini that I am very pleased to be providing for you.’

I cannot swear to this, but I think that the same might apply in American English. A small house on the prairie would be, well, simply not as big as some others. A little house on the prairie is home.

I lived in Scotland for some years, and many times have heard Scots refer to ‘ma wee hoose’. Even if the house is actually quite big, it is ‘wee’ in the sense that the owner is quite fond of it, and feels protective towards it.

Your examples from Northern Ireland sound convincing (I have spent time there, too), and seem to reflect Scottish usage of ‘wee’ as well as (roughly) the English sense of ‘little’.

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I was born in Northern Ireland and have lived here all my life. I can confirm that the use of "wee" is normally not a reference to size and "little" is often not a substitute. For example, I have just had someone ask if they can use "my wee toilet", but I can assure you that all my toilets are a perfectly normal size! In this case, it was probably just to soften the request. "Wee" will also be regularly used by carers, "Give me your wee arm so that I can give you a wee injection" - this is to make the proposal sound less threatening.

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    What does wee mean, then, in terms of "Give me your wee arm"? May 23 '19 at 12:46

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