“Small Fry”

The slang term “small fry” is used to denote a person or thing as juvenile, somebody who is not fully developed, or is insignificant.

Small fry in police lineup.
Small fry criminals in police lineup, back in the day.

“Small fry” can connote derision and/or condescension, with a whiff of menace thrown in, as in…

… “Nah, don’t bother with those guys from “Hell’s Kitchen. They’re small fry, definitely small potatoes, they’re only interested with penny ante stuff.”

Or the expression can be used as an affectionate diminutive …

… “Okay, everybody! Let the small fry sit in front, and the older kids in back.”

Three little kids in wagon being pulled by big dog.
Small fry in wagon.
A small container of french fries
Small fries –Yummy, yes, but not what this Disappearing Idiom refers to.


The expression “small fry” has nothing to do with a small order of French fries or any other fried food for that matter. “Fry” may have been derived from the Middle English, Anglo-French frie, which means “to spawn.” Eventually ”frie” became “fry,” the term and denoted offspring, young animals, or members of a group.

Or, alternatively, “fry” may have come from the Old Norse frjo or fræ meaning “seed or offspring.”

When the expression “small fry” was first used in a derogative manner for those who are powerless, inexperience or diminished in some way is a matter of contention. A lot of contention.

But the phrase does appear in Crockett, Tour Down East, written by Davy Crockett of frontier fame and published in 1835. In the book, Crockett describes supporters of General Andrew Jackson as “small fry as busy as pismires (archaic for ants).” As Texans know, a year after the book’s publication, Crockett was dead, killed at the Battle of the Alamo.

Portrait of Davie Crockett
Davy Crockett, “King of the Wild Frontier” – U.S. Congressman, Folk Hero, Soldier (1786 – 1836). In a contemporary portrait by Chester Harding, minus buckskins and coonskin hat. Crockett is also noted for saying, upon  leaving Congress after losing reelection, “You may all go to Hell, and I will go to Texas.”

By the later part of the 19th century the phrase “small fry” was in use in all English-speaking countries, and in 1938, was the name of a gently admonishing, slightly bluesy tune written by Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser. The opening verses went

… Small fry, sittin’ by the pool room
Small fry, should be in the school room
My, my, put down that cigarette
You ain’t a-grown up high and mighty yet

Small fry, dancin’ for a penny
Small fry, countin’ up how many
My, my, just listen here to me
You ain’t the biggest catfish in the sea…

The song Small Fry first appeared in the film Sing You Sinners (1938), sung by Bing Crosby together with a supporting cast that included Donald O’Connor and Fred MacMurray. But the rendition most remembered today (at least by me) is the one in the Max Fleischer cartoon of the same name in which a mother fish warns her son not to grow up too fast.

Fleischer Studio’s Small Fry cartoon (1939).
Fleischer Studio’s Small Fry cartoon (1939). The song “Small Fry” begins at 3:30 minutes into the short.

The cartoon still offers good advice, as far as this parent is concerned. Especially for teens.


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