"small, but perfectly formed"

Mark_Mandel at DRAGONSYS.COM Mark_Mandel at DRAGONSYS.COM
Fri Dec 3 19:49:25 UTC 1999

>From LINGUIST List #10-1861

     Please reply to the poster, NOT to me.


Date: Wed, 1 Dec 1999 15:44:41 +1300
From: Simon Cauchi <cauchi at wave.co.nz>
Subject: Origin of phrase "small, but perfectly formed"

On another list (Copyediting-l) this question was asked:

>Does anyone know the origin of, or who first used, the phrase "small, but
>perfectly formed"?

The earliest use I can find of the phrase is in a letter written by Duff
Cooper to his future wife Lady Diana Manners in October 1914:

"I really did enjoy Belvoir you know ... You must I think have enjoyed it
too, with your two stout lovers frowning at one another across the hearth
rug, while your small, but perfectly formed one kept the party in a roar."

This quotation is included in the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations,
where the cited source is Artemis Cooper (ed.), A Durable Fire: The Letters
of Duff Cooper and Lady Diana Cooper (1983), p. 17 -- a work I have not yet
been able to consult.

However, I suspect that Duff Cooper did not invent the phrase but was
alluding to the idea of the "pocket Venus" (or perhaps, if the lover in
question was a man, a pocket Adonis, to coin a phrase). That, at any rate,
is the conclusion I draw from the quotations in the OED for "pocket Venus":

1869 S. R. Hole Bk. about Roses viii. 125 The lovely little Banksian
Rose..this pocket, or rather button-hole, Venus.
1921 W. de la Mare Memoirs of Midget xxxiii. 229 Aunt Alice calls you her
'pocket Venus', and she means it, too, in her own sly way.
1969 H. K. Fleming Day they kidnapped Queen Victoria vi. 106 Four years had
gone by, since, as the 'Pocket Venus', she had been the rage and toast of
1979 'P. O'Connor' Into Strong City ii. xxvii. 98 Nancy was dark and
petite, perfectly formed---the proverbial pocket venus.

I have had no success in getting hold of any of these books, but I think
the 1969 Fleming quotation almost certainly refers to Lady Florence Paget,
a petite beauty who in 1864 eloped with the Marquis of Hastings when she
was engaged to be married to someone else. Presumably the 1869 Hole
quotation alludes to that recent high society scandal. Although only the
1979 'O'Connor' quotation brings the two ideas together, I still think Duff
Cooper's phrase probably alludes to the idea of a pocket Venus.

But does anyone know of an earlier use of the phrase "small, but perfectly
formed" than Duff Cooper's, or of any other explanation of its origin? The
question has long been puzzling me, even before my curiosity was rekindled
by the query in Copyediting-l.

If anyone responds, I'd be very grateful if you would send a copy of your
reply directly to me, as well as to the Linguist list.

Simon Cauchi, Hamilton, New Zealand
<cauchi at wave.co.nz>

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