I don’t remember when I first heard it, but the phrase ‘Many nickels make a muckle” has been bouncing around my brain for nigh eighty years. Until a few days ago, I thought I was dealing with Lewis Carroll-type nonsense words, but the phrase is very real, though it is even stranger than I had always believed.
The actual phrase, according to The Scotsman, is actually “Many a mickle make a muckle,” an aphorism used to indicate that many small things add up to one big thing, a Scottish equivalent of “little strokes fell great oaks.” However, even that usage is wrong! Both mickle and muckle mean ‘a large amount’. Rather, the word for a small amount is pickle or puckle, so the original phrase SHOULD be “many a pickle makes a muckle,” which isn’t nearly as much fun to say.
Language is a slippery thing, and English especially so. ‘Flammable’ and ‘inflammable’ sound like opposites but are actually synonyms (believe it or not, BOTH mean easily set on fire!); ‘cleave’ can mean to join together or to pull apart, while ‘seed’ can mean to take seeds out of something (like a fruit) or put them in something (like a field); and apparently we even have words like ‘muckle’, which sound like nursery-rhyme nonsense but actually mean something. And, perhaps most oddly, we have words like ‘mickle’, which actually means a large amount, but is exclusively used to refer to a small amount. (Actually, I am pretty sure that ‘mickle’ is the only word like that, but who knows for sure!)
Our language is always changing, caught in a tug-of-war between our culture, our history, and the speaker’s thoughts and intentions.
And of course, maybe that’s WHY I misheard mickle as nickel; spending so much of my life working in finance and commerce, how could I not? After all, I know it to be true: gather enough small change, and you have a fortune. A chain of small transactions can lead to a muckle of nice bonuses. All those nickels can power the compound interest that Ben Franklin made so clear and compelling.
But the world of pennies and nickels may be quickly coming to an end. Success is not as often about the small margin as the big score.
But, this new world will hopefully not just be empty of nickels but full of muckles. So we better “Buckle up and muckle down!”