Petty is no small thing in English

Petty is an interesting word used in some quite different ways. It is essentially a direct phonemic steal from French petite for small. As a stand-alone word petty means small minded, it is almost a contraction of petty-minded, which, of course, is the same thing.

But petty has quite a few uses in English that don’t have the same disparaging tone. Petty cash is an obvious one meaning small money, which of course it is. A petty officer is a junior officer. But English has kept the French petit when it is teamed with other obviously French words: petit four, a small French confectionary but taking its meaning from little oven where they were originally made; petit mal, for the mild form of epilepsy, meaning little evil; and petit bourgeois for the lower merchant class. Incidentally petit bourgeois, a concept made popular by Marx and Engels for the conventional disciples of capitalism, was first used in English by none other than Charlotte Brontë in 1832.

The origin of petty and petit is a little uncertain but is most probably from a celtic root, pett, for part, piece, bit. This is also the source of the English word piece. Late Latin picked it up in pitinnus for small.

However my favourite use of the word is in pettifogger. This delightful word is thought to derive from two possible sources. The first teams petty for small with an old Dutch word, focker, from Flemish focken to cheat, to give a small cheater. The second teams petty with Fugger, which was a renowned family of merchants and financiers of 15th and 16th century Augsburg (qv spruce), which became used for a monopolist, rich man, usurer, and hence a petty Fugger, someone who used dishonourable practices on a small scale. That it became used more for lawyers than financiers may be a convergence with pettifactor for legal agent who undertakes small cases.