Over time, the word ‘petty’ has acquired negative connotations. A petty person complains that their soup has the wrong type of croutons in it, dismisses a potential suitor because he has terrible taste in shoes, or in extreme cases, votes for UKIP because their vision of happiness is employing a nice, English plumber and not some foreigner with an accent. Petty people view the world from a distorted perspective, as the trivial becomes enormous and more important things get overlooked.
But the etymological root of petty, is the French petit, or small. And smallness is personal, a way of compassing the vast, unwieldy universe so that it makes sense for us. Petty is also connected to the word pet- it’s interesting to think that while some people keep cats and dogs for companionship and comfort, others retain habits like eating only green olives or exclusively dating musicians, for similar reasons. Who knows, for some people, eating a black olive or dating an accountant might be as traumatic as the death of a beloved pet.
Smallness equates to one’s comfort zone. When people move to London, or any other big city, one of the first things they do is to shrink it to a manageable size. They fill it with virtual landmarks like ‘my hairdresser, café, or night-cap spot’. Like the proud, tribal elder who stubbornly refuses to leave his village, seasoned metropolitan dwellers are often reluctant to stray beyond their personal cities in a way that reveals them to be worryingly uncurious.
We especially think on a small, personal scale when it comes to our loved ones, calling them all sorts of pet names. My mum has to be the Queen pet-namer. Her names for me and my brother are beyond random: because he liked melon as a baby, or just ate melon once (I can’t remember which) he was nicknamed Bebona, after the Greek word for melon (beboni), and I have had a flurry of pet-names, which have changed according to my mum’s preference in words. My latest ones are Lilo or Lily Pad. As a little girl, I quickly learned that being called by my real name was a bad sign: I was no longer mum’s pet, but estranged, and in trouble.
The French have long been turning their favourite people and things into miniatures, with the prefix ‘petit/e’. The Romantic novelist Victor Hugo’s lover Juliette Drouet addressed him as ‘mon petit homme’ (my little man), in her letters. Though this term of endearment has fallen out of favour even in France, and I wouldn’t advise anyone to try it out at home, I can understand the sentiment behind it. She wanted to express that this great public figure was on one level, her’s alone. Other French pet-names turn significant others into trifling and even abject things, for example ‘mon chou’ morphs your lover into a cabbage, while ‘ma puce’ (a little sexier) makes him a blood-sucking flea. These words’ exact meanings are insignificant, but their colloquial, intimate nature is not.
When it comes to choosing our mate, we can be pettiest of all, as we judge whether we connect with someone over the little things that seem big to us. A talented artist friend, who puts more effort into Christmas than all Santa’s elves combined, confessed that she once went out with someone because he made his own wrapping paper and gift boxes. It didn’t work out, but I’m sure Christmas was especially beautiful that year. I once turned someone down because he had a terrible vocabulary and clearly didn’t read for pleasure. Words like ‘jasmine’, ‘visceral’ and ‘elopement’ escaped him, and no, in case you’re wondering, the poor guy wasn’t playing dumb because I’d made a jasmine-scented elopement a precondition for us getting visceral. Yes, I win the petty prize of the year and maybe the snob one too, but words have been my lifeblood, and I know that a man who doesn’t ‘get’ them, won’t understand me.
But, the bottom line is, pettiness and broad-mindedness (or largesse) needn’t be mutually exclusive. I really think you need both to be happy: a sense of the small things that make you feel instantly at home and the courage to give them up and be open to new, greater experiences.