• iota •
ai-o-tê • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. The ninth letter of the Greek alphabet, equivalent to a short [i]. 2. A jot, a tittle, a wee bit, a very, very small amount.
Notes: The name of the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet has become our word for the smallest imaginable thing in general (see Word History). It sounds a bit odd in English, so it has not developed a derivational family. A rather odd abstract noun, iotacism, is occasionally used in referring to overpronunciation of the sound [i], such as the pronunciation of pen as [pin] down South or bed as [bid] in Australia and New Zealand.
In Play: This word is used in Matthew 5:18 of the New Testament: "For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass away, not one jot [iota] or one tittle shall in any wise pass from the law till all be fulfilled." The word is usually translated as jot in English, but in the original Greek it is iota. The use of the original iota is quite common in English today: "I will not retreat one iota from my opposition to putting new employees in cubicles."
Word History: Iota is the name of the ninth and smallest letter in the Greek alphabet. The letter's name is from Semitic, probably Hebrew yodh, Modern Hebrew yud, the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, expressing the sound [y]. This word goes back to yodh, the tenth letter of the Phoenician alphabet, also the word for "hand". This suggests that the shape of the letter likely originated as an Egyptian hieroglyph of an arm. English also borrowed the French version of this word, jota, shortened it and Anglicized the pronunciation to jot. (I offer our heartfelt gratitude to Margaret Knapp for suggesting today's Good little Word without an iota of hesitation.)
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