MICKLE—a once great word

Many a mickle makes a muckle, is a saying from the north of England (1). In Scotland: a wheen o’ mickles mak’s a muckle was recorded in the late 19th century (2). A Jamaican website reports a current Jamaican saying as: Every mickle mek a mockle (3).

Mickle is a very old word which has survived fossil-like embedded in this little phrase used in local dialects in northern England and Scotland (where it was introduced by the Vikings) (4) and in the Creole of Jamaica (where it was taken by slave traders) (5).

But what does it mean?  Mickle is equivalent to the Old High German word, mihhil; Latin magnus; Greek megas; Sanskrit mahat; which, of course, all mean great or large (6). The sense of the phrase is that many small amounts accumulate to make a large amount.  The original epigram was: many a little makes a mickle (1) where mickle has its true meaning of being something large.

The saying has been changed over time with mickle becoming the “little” and muckle being substituted for mickle, probably accidentally in the same way that words like helter-skelter, ragtag or boogie-woogie came into being (in linguistics it is called reduplication). Because everyone has forgotten what it means, the expression has lived on with mickle having lost its greatness to muckle.

It was probably introduced into English by the Vikings from Old Norse. It forms a common element in Yorkshire place names (4), for instance: the town of Micklethwaite (meaning great piece of land or meadow), Micklegate in York (great street) and Mickle Fell (great mountain or hill).

JRR Tolkein uses it, naming the Hobbit‘s largest town Mickel Delving, meaning the big dig (7); and Shakespeare:

O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In herbs, plants, stones, and their true qualities…

says Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet (Act 2 Scene III).

1. Oxford Dictionary Online; 2. E. Cobham Brewer (1810-1897) Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1898; 3. Lasana Bandele Jamaican Proverbs and Words; 4. Yorkshire Dialect Words of Old Norse Origin; 5. Hannah Appel Jamaican Language, Past and Present By ; 6. Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary; 7. Word Links