WORDS: MINI

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THE ROYAL Academy has been staging a "mini exhibition" marking the International Year of Older Persons, I read in the Independent. The word mini is defined in the dictionaries as "very small", and everyone knows that small is beautiful, but I doubt whether its sponsors would have been too happy if the show had been described as "a very small exhibition". For mini has a cachet that its synonyms lack. There's a whiff of the chic about it, rather like the chic that used to attach to the word bijou until the estate agents took it up and made a laughing-stock of it.

It is often thought that mini is an abbreviation of miniature, but this is quite wrong. The adjective, as now universally used, is really short for minimus, and the credit for this should go to the British Motor Corporation, whose Mini, as Older Persons will remember, was unveiled not quite 40 years ago.

Back in 1930, Lord Nuffield had brought out his answer to the Baby Austin and called it the Morris Minor, a variation of the "Junior" favoured by all kinds of manufacturers for their cheaper products. "Minor", unlike them, had a classy public-school ring to it. Then Nuffield produced a now almost forgotten big brother to the Minor and called it the Morris Major. So in 1960 it was only logical to keep up the Greyfriars tradition and to call the new boy a Morris Minimus. (It was Ford, of course, that tried to go one better with its Prefect.)

However, the scholarly little joke fell flat and was soon forgotten, so Alec Issigonis's brainchild rapidly became the Minicar. Its etymological origin was further obscured some years later when the BMC brought out the Maxi, giving the impression that mini was short for minimum.

There had been an additional problem with the name "Minimus" because of its nearness to the already existing minibus, making it vulnerable to typographical error. The minibus, horse-drawn in its early days, had been around since the middle of the 19th century. It was what Lewis Carroll called a portmanteau word - its back end came from omnibus, its front from minimum. It was only in the early 1960s, then, that mini, the noun, came into the language. This must be the only example of a word now in general use that began as a name for a car; the only other kind of mini that I know of is a skirt, and that came later than the car. The adjective followed soon after, but it took a while before it became totally detached. At first it had always needed a noun to go with it, such as a skirt or a cab, while most other things called for a hyphen. Mini-cycles, mini- holidays and mini-budgets all had one, as did mini-celebrities, though I see from Webster that the Americans, ahead as usual, were calling miniature cameras minicams in the 1930s.

Its final graduation as a word on its own, without visible support, came when people began saying that some things were minier than others. I suppose it could one day go the way of bijou, but not for a long while yet.

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