“It’s warmed up a little bit since this morning,” I say to my daughters as Echo, the black Lab, strains at his leash and zooms us down Cundy’s Harbor Road.
“Yes,” each agrees. They are walking next to me, trying to keep up with the dogged pace. Looking ahead, I see a car approaching us.
“Better get behind me,” I say.
There isn’t much of a shoulder on Cundy’s Harbor Road, so to be safe, we get into single file, like we’re walking up Mount Everest.
The vehicle zooms by and a moment later a cold wind dabs at our faces. We resume marching band formation.
“That car was going a bit fast,” I say.
“Yes,” each agrees.
“A bit too fast,” Molly says.
“Just a little bit,” Calliope adds.
We continue tromping along, letting Echo take us wherever he wants to go. In the silence I think about recipes and the word “bit.” Another car approaches and we get into single file. I am thinking about the word bit.
“How much is a bit?” I say to the hill climbers behind me.
“I don’t know,” Molly says.
“Like a little?” Calliope says.
“Well,” I say, “that’s what I think, too. But imagine we are going ice skating on the pond and I fall hard and you ask me if it hurt and I say, ‘A little bit.’ What do you think I mean?”
“That it hurt a lot,” Molly says.
We resume marching band formation. There is a confused silence.
“How come words sometimes don’t mean what they mean?” Calliope asks.
I pull out my phone and tell them I’m going to look up the word “bit.” Unfortunately, we’re at the spot in the road where the signal is bad.
“We’ll have to wait a bit till I get a better signal,” I say.
“Is that a long time or a short time?” Molly asks.
“I have no idea,” I say. I now realize I don’t know what the word bit means anymore.
When the signal strengthens, I go to an online dictionary and see that the word “bit” means a little part of something. But the phrase “a bit too much” means too much of something. Somehow there’s a point when a little becomes a lot. I explain what the dictionary says in a loud voice because Molly and Calliope are behind me again.
Then I put into words what we all are thinking.
“So it’s redundant to say ‘a little bit’ because it’s like saying “a little little.”
“But I do think there are times when you need to say little with bit,” Molly says.
Calliope disagrees and says from now on she’ll just say bit without the little in front of it.
Like Einstein, I conceive a hypothetical to discuss and cross the road to head back home. Echo stops and smells a clump of dirty snow.
“Imagine we’re at Olive Garden and a waiter comes over with a Parmesan cheese grinder and asks you if you want some cheese on your pasta. If you just want a little, are you going to say, a little bit or a bit?”
Calliope, now retracting her earlier thinking, says, “A little bit.”
Molly agrees and says, “If you don’t say a little bit, then the waiter will likely put a bit too much cheese on your pasta.”
I think that is right and continue the hypothetical.
“And then, if the waiter puts a bit too much Parmesan cheese on your pasta and you take a big bite out of that little bit, it’s not going to taste good. It might taste too bitter.”
Everyone agrees. For the rest of the walk, we digest what we’ve thought and said until we reach home. I take the dog off the leash and Echo bounds away into the backyard.
“That was a bit of a walk,” Molly says.
Sadly, despite our best efforts to understand the word, I tell Molly I have no idea what she means.
“Me neither,” Calliope agrees.
Gregory Greenleaf lives in Harpswell and teaches high school English. He ascribes, prescribes and subscribes to many old-fashioned ideas, but especially Charles Dickens’ observation that “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.”