J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, June 05, 2016

Washington’s Mickles in a Pickle

Last week’s episode of the television series Turn: Washington’s Spies was titled “Many Mickles Make a Muckle,” after a saying Gen. George Washington voiced early in the action.

Washington actually did write that phrase, albeit in 1793. That April he wrote to Anthony Whitting, a manager at Mount Vernon, about the importance of keeping track of expenses:
People are often ruined before they are aware of the danger, by buying every thing they think they want; conceiving them to be trifles—without adverting to a scotch addage—than which nothing in nature is more true—“that many mickles make a muckle.”
However, Whitting didn’t live up to Washington’s standards, and at the end of the year he wrote to William Pearce:
Nothing will contribute more to effect these desirable purposes than a good example—unhappily this was not set (from what I have learnt lately) by Mr Whiting, who, it is said, drank freely—kept bad company at my house and in Alexandria—& was a very debauched person—where ever this is the case it is not easy for a man to throw the first stone for fear of having it returned to him: and this I take to be the true cause why Mr Whiting did not look more scrupulously into the conduct of the Overseers, & more minutely into the smaller matters belonging to the Farms—which, though individually may be trifling, are not found so in the agregate, for there is no addage more true than an old Scotch one, that “many mickles make a muckle.”
And Washington still had that advice on his mind the following June when he told his Philadelphia steward James Germain:
There is an old Scotch adage, than which none in the whole catalogue of them is more true, or more worthy of being held in remembrance—viz.—“that many mickles make a muckle” indicating that however trifling a thing may be in itself, when it stands alone, yet, when they come to be multiplyed they mount high which serves to prove, that nothing, however trifling, ought to be wasted that can be saved—nor bought if you can do well without it.
However, as Betty Kirkpatrick at the Caledonian Mercury has pointed out, Washington misquoted the traditional adage. She explained:
Mickle and muckle, far from being opposites in meaning, actually mean the same thing. As nouns they both mean a large amount or a great deal of something. As adjectives they both mean large or great in size. Many Scots words have variations in spelling and muckle/mickle is an example. Meikle is another variation of the same word, as in the meikle stane (stone) mentioned in “Tam o’ Shanter.”
Kirkpatrick suggests the original phrase was “Mony a pickle maks a muckle,” which would indeed mean a lot of little things add up to a big thing.

There were a couple of other variations circulating in eighteenth-century America. In Poor Richard’s Almanac for 1737 Benjamin Franklin reminded readers, “Every little makes a mickle.” And in 1758 Poor Richard’s rendered the phrase as “Many a little makes a mickle.”


The Greenockian said...

Here in Scotland we still say "many a mickle maks a muckle"!

J. L. Bell said...

I used the Google Ngram Viewer to test different versions of the phrase from 1700 to 1900.

"Many a (or Every) little makes a muckle" is by far the most popular form in that period. Toward the end "Many a mickle makes a muckle" starts to gain popularity regardless of whether it literally means "Many a big mess makes a big mess." Washington's preferred form, "Many mickles…," continues to lag.