The tabloids had plenty of descriptive phrases for these two children - 'transplant tot', 'murdered toddler', etc - but the one indispensable word was 'little'. The Sun started a 'Save Little Laura' campaign and nearly every tabloid paper, at one time or another, has referred to 'Little James' or 'Little Jamie'. When a small child was killed in a joy-riding accident recently the Mail referred to him, quite automatically I imagine, as 'Little Daniel Smalley'.
When used like this the word clearly has nothing whatever to do with size1 . Most people know that a two-year-old is relatively small. Nor is the reporter attempting to convey the fact that Laura Davies and James Bulger were small for their age. They could, in fact, have been way above the growth curve and they would still have been referred to as 'little' (you can easily test this by replacing the word with its obvious2 synonym: 'Small Laura Davies' just doesn't send the right signals).
Just as the word 'blonde', when used in reports of sexual shenanigans, doesn't really say anything about hair colour, 'little' is used as an emotional shorthand for readers. When you unpack 'blonde' you find it contains a surprising amount of baggage for so short a word - ideas of physical allure and sexual availability that have grown up because of the company it keeps. But 'blonde' is a mere overnight bag compared to 'little', a word that finds room for notions of vulnerability, innocence, sweetness, even determined courage.
Its sentimental history begins quite early. Shakespeare has uses of 'little' as an emotional intensifier, and a century later Swift described his own use of baby-talk in his letters to Esther Johnson (Journal to Stella) as his 'little language'. But it is in the 19th century that it accelerates towards its current insinuation.
The title of Little Women is cannily designed to draw on a Victorian taste for domestic innocence and Dickens couldn't leave the word alone. Little Nell and Little Dorritt are obvious examples, but when the word comes up in the novels you can almost feel his fingers getting sweaty. 'She had the most delightful little voice, the gayest little laugh, the pleasantest and most fascinating little ways, that ever led a lost youth into hopeless slavery,' he writes in David Copperfield, a passage that froths with a frilly, reductive lust for child-women.
At the same time the word continued to have derogatory connotations (see Disraeli's 'Little things worry little minds' for a concise example) but those begin to struggle as the century turns. Some of the more dismissive meanings are taken up by 'small' so that we now say 'small-minded' rather than 'little-minded' (petty being a more Frenchified version).
The other association that 'little' has - with valour or spirit - strengthens. 'Little' comes to imply the existence of a brutal aggressor as well as an appealing victim. 'Plucky little Belgium' excited British imperial indignation, a fantasy of standing in loco parentis for the world (a fantasy Little Englanders were strongly opposed to). For this century at least, it secures the word's ability to arouse a general protectiveness.
These days it can result in mixed messages. In this paper yesterday the sports page contained a sentence about Graham Taylor's belief that England could put themselves in the record books by 'thrashing little San Marino', a sentence that would normally invite sympathy for San Marino and hostility to the thrasher. In this case, I suspect, it betrays a forlorn3 hope. The England team as playground bullies? We wish.
1 From the French assise, meaning the act of sitting down. The word is directly related to assize, as in courts, coming to mean a legally fixed standard of quantity or quality.
2 Literally, in the way, from the Latin ob, against, and via, the way.
3 From the verb forlese (Old English forleosan), meaning to lose.Reuse content