person(s) or matter(s) of little or no importance
Since the early 14th century, the adjective small has been used to mean of low alcoholic strength. For example, The Forme of Cury¹, a roll of English cookery, compiled around 1390 by the master cooks of Richard II, contains a recipe for flampoints (pies or tarts ornamented with pointed pieces of pastry) which thus begins:
For to make ﬂaumpeyns.
Take clene pork and boile it tendre. Thenne hewe it smale, and bray it smale in a mortar. Take fyges and boile hem tendre in smale ale.
(¹ The obsolete noun cury, meaning cookery, is from Old French forms such as keuerie and queuerie, of same meaning, from Latin coquus, cocus, a cook.)
The London Prodigall, an anonymous play first issued in 1605 with “By William Shakespeare” on the title page, contains the following:
Drawer, let me haue sacke² for vs old men:
For these girles and knaues small wines are best.
(² sack: a general name for a class of white wines formerly imported from Spain and the Canaries; from French vin sec, dry wine)
The term small beer means beer of a weak, poor or inferior quality. In the city of Norwich in 1498, because the price of malt had risen, the aldermen agreed that the price of the barrel of beer should be raised forthwith. Richard Ferrour, the Mayor,
assigned the berebruers wᵗin the cite to sell to alle the Kynges subgettes a ferken [= firkin] of the best bere for vijᵈ and a ferken of the next bere for vᵈ, where as they solde a fore for iiijᵈ the ferken of smalbere and for the vjᵈ the ferken of best bere.
The English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is the first known user of small beer in its figurative sense. In The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice (around 1603), Iago has lashed out against his own wife, Emilia, as well as against all women. Desdemona asks him what sort of praise, under such conditions, he should nonetheless bestow upon a woman who undoubtedly deserves praise. Iago improvises a poem that brings together all the qualities of the perfect woman, but its last line abruptly falls back into derision and sarcasm; this perfectly virtuous woman shall soon find herself ready “to suckle fools and chronicle small beer”:
– Desdemona: But what
praise couldst thou bestow on a deseruing woman indeed? one,
that in the authority of her merrits, did iustly put on the vouch of
very malice it selfe?
– Iago: She that was euer faire, and neuer proud,
Had tongue at will, and yet was neuer lowd,
Neuer lackt gold, and yet went neuer gay,
Fled from her wish, and yet said, now I may:
She that being angred, her reuenge being nigh,
Bad her wrong stay, and her displeasure flye;
She that in wisedome, neuer was so fraile,
To change the Codshead for the Salmons taile.
She that could thinke, and ne’re disclose her minde,
She was a wight, if euer such wight were.
– Desdemona: To doe what?
– Iago: To suckle fooles, and chronicle small Beere.
– Desdemona: O most lame and impotent conclusion:
Doe not learne of him Emillia, tho he be thy husband.
In French, petite bière, small beer, is also used figuratively, usually in the negative phrase ce n’est pas de la petite bière, meaning either he/she isn’t just anybody or it is no small matter.