Make a mountain out of a molehill

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Making a mountain out of a molehill is an idiom referring to over-reactive, histrionic behaviour where a person makes too much of a minor issue. It seems to have come into existence in the 16th century.

Metaphor[edit]

The idiom is a metaphor for the common behaviour of responding disproportionately to something - usually an adverse circumstance.[1] One who "makes a mountain out of a molehill" is said to be greatly exaggerating the severity of the situation.[2][3] In cognitive psychology, this form of distortion is called magnification.[4] The term is also used to refer to one who has dwelled on a situation that has long passed and is therefore no longer significant.[5]

The phrase is so common that a study by psychologists found that with respect to "familiarity" and "image value", it ranks in the top quartile of the 203 common sayings they tested.[6] It is an example of exaggerative accentuation.[7]

Origin[edit]

Molehills at the foot of a Scottish mountain

The earliest recorded use of this alliterative phrase is in 1548. The word for the animal involved was less than two hundred years old by then. Previous to that the mole had been known by its Old English name wand, which had slowly changed to 'want'. A molehill was known as a 'wantitump', a word that continued in dialect use for centuries more.[8] The old name of want was then replaced by mold(e)warp (meaning earth-thrower),[9] a shortened version of which (molle) began to appear in the later 14th century[10] and the word molehill in the first half of the 15th century.[11]

The idiom is found in Nicholas Udall's translation of The first tome or volume of the Paraphrase of Erasmus vpon the newe testamente (1548) in the statement that "The Sophistes of Grece coulde through their copiousness make an Elephant of a flye, and a mountaine of a mollehill." The comparison of the elephant with a fly (elephantem ex musca facere) is an old Latin proverb that Erasmus himself had recorded in his collection of such phrases, the Adagia; variations on it still continue in use throughout Europe. The mountain and molehill seem to have been added by Udall[12] and the phrase has continued in popular use ever since. If the idiom was not coined by Udall himself, the linguistic evidence above suggests that it cannot have been in existence long.

Idioms with a similar meaning include 'Much ado about nothing' and 'Making a song and dance about nothing'. They are the opposite of the formerly popular fable about the mountain in labour that gives birth to a mouse. In the former too much is made of little; in the latter one is led to expect much, but with too little result. The two appear to converge in William Caxton's translation (1484), where he makes of the mountain a hylle whiche beganne to tremble and shake by cause of the molle whiche delved it.[13] In other words, he mimics the meaning of the fable and turns a mountain into a molehill. It is out of this bringing together of the two that the English idiom has grown.

References[edit]

  1. ^ John Blackwell, Jaime Blackwell, "The Molehill", Reflections: Thoughts Worth Pondering One Moment at a Time 
  2. ^ Snicket, Lemony (January 1, 2000). The Austere Academy. Scholastic. ISBN 978-0-06-440863-9. Retrieved 2010-01-30. 
  3. ^ Ammer, Christine (April 1, September 13, 2003). Make a mountain out of a molehill. The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms (Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). ISBN 0618249532. Retrieved May 31, 2013.  Check date values in: |date= (help) ISBN 978-0618249534
  4. ^ William J. Knaus, Albert Ellis (2006), The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Depression, p. 106 
  5. ^ Knaus, William J (2006). The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Depression. New Harbinger Publications. ISBN 978-1572244733. Retrieved 2010-01-30. 
  6. ^ Kenneth L. Higbee and Richard J. Millard, Visual imagery and familiarity ratings for 203 sayings, Am. J. Psychiatry, Summer 1983, Vol. 96, No. 2, pp. 211-222; found at JSTOR website. Retrieved January 28, 2010.
  7. ^ Thomas Burkart, Towards a Dialectic Theory of Feeling, in Leo Gürtler, Mechthild Kiegelmann and Günter L. Huber (Eds.), Areas of Qualitative Psychology – Special Focus on Design, Qualitative Psychology Nexus: Vol. 4 (Tübingen, Germany: Verlag Ingeborg Huber 2005) ISBN 3-9810087-0-7, at p. 48. ("Feelings tend to an exaggerative accentuation of the object of feeling, increasing with the intensity of feeling. ... Examples are "to make a mountain out of a molehill ....") Found at Google Scholar. Retrieved January 28, 2010.
  8. ^ J.O.Halliwell, A Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, London 1847
  9. ^ "moldwarp". dictionary.com. Retrieved May 31, 2013. 
  10. ^ "mole". dictionary.com. Retrieved May 31, 2013. 
  11. ^ "molehill". dictionary.com. Retrieved May 31, 2013. 
  12. ^ William Safire (June 14, 1987), "On Language - The Earth Makes Its Move", The New York Times 
  13. ^ "2.5. Of the Montayn whiche shoke (Caxton's Aesop)". Mythfolklore.net. Retrieved 2013-06-01.