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Gulliver is tied down by the Liliputians spacer
figure 1


ankle-biters. 1. Small children, akin to the more contemporary “rug rats.”reference 1 2. Lilliputian foes. They may be small-minded, insecure, lacking in authority, or passive-aggressive saboteurs. Individually they are weak by nature; however, in sufficient numbers ankle-biters are serious pests. 3. Specifically, “small-minded bureaucrats; pettifogging aides” in the military or the government.reference 2 4. A “small cap” company, that is a publicly traded company whose stock is issued with less than a half a billion in capitalization. Or maybe it's less than one or even less than two billion.reference 3 Small is clearly relative but certainly not over the ankle in height.

This began as an affectionate phrase for small feisty dogs who were then likened to irritating children. Gary Martin offers an early citation for the first use in Harper's Magazine, September 1850: “And how are you, John? and how's Molly, and all the little ankle-biters?” In that context, it's hard to mistake the meaning. However, the phrase did not catch on for another century. It turns up next in Peter Opie's The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren.reference 4

When it comes to government or political usage (lilliputian foes), William Safire found a citation in a 1981 New York Times report about West Point. However, the OED provides a 1968 citation from the same newspaper.reference 5 Safire marks 1991 as the year in which the phrase crossed fully into the political sphere. The Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., one Prince Banadar bin Sultan, told American troops, “Don't let the ankle-biters get to you…” Safire compares it to the use of “munchkins” in the 1970's.reference 6

Steven Pearlstein provides us with a current gloss when discussing critics of the people who helped to engineer this little miracle [the financial recovery of the U.S. economy]folks like Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke, Tim Geithner, Neel Kashkari, Sheila Bair, Barney Frank and so forthreference 7:

Every crisis generates its own set of leaders willing to take risks, twist arms and even bend a few rules to get us through it. Every crisis also generates its own set of political ankle-biters. It's not hard to tell the two apart.reference 8

Yes, I think the emergence of ankle-biters is perennial. And, it may not be hard to tell them apart, if you share Pearlstein's perspective. However, I think it is in the eyes of the beholders which ones are the ankle-biters and which are the little guys who are mad as hell and not going to take it any more.

1. Martin, Gary J., ed. 2009. Ankle-Biter. The Phrase Finder. The Phrase Finder. Accessed Aug 8 2009 from http:// meanings/ ankle-biter.html.

2. Safire, William. 2008. Safire's Political Dictionary. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press. 21.

3. Farlex. 2004. Farlex Financial Dictionary. Free Dictionary. Farlex. Accessed Mar 14 2010 from http:// financial-dictionary. Ankle+Biter.


4. Martin, Gary J.


5. The Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2005. 3d ed. Accessed from http://

6. Safire, William.



7. Pearlstein, Steven R. . 1009. Crisis Managers Vs. Naysayers. Washington Post, Jun 12. Accessed http:// wp-dyn/ content/ article/ 2009/06/11/ AR2009061104224.html.

8. Pearlstein, Steven R.



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Ankle-biters may also refer to trousers that are designed to tuck inside the socks or a pair of contraptions that athletescyclists in particularwear to keep dirt out of their shoes and perhaps offer some small ankle support.reference 9 However, to my mind these usages do not refer to dogs and are merely vividly descriptions of the way these items are worn.

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spacer still from the film Ankle Bit
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Finally, Ankle Biters is a 2002 film by Adam Minarovich about a pack of midget vampires. Definitely not a canine reference.

9. Ankle Biter. 2009. SixSixOne. SixSixOne USA. Accessed Aug 8 2009 from http:// Catalog_661Bike.aspx.







About the illustration: Figure 1 shows Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians. The illustration by Milo Winter is in the public domain.reference 10

Figure 2 shows a pair of SixSixOne Ankle Bitersand Ankle Pads. This is an image used to promote a product for sale.

Figure 3 is a still from the trailer for Ankle Biters. This image is excerpted from the trailer for the film, and the copyright for it is most likely owned by either the publisher or the creator of the work depicted. I believe that the use of scaled-down, low-resolution images of posters to provide critical commentary on the film in question qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

10. Swift, Jonathan. 1912. Gulliver's Travels. Chicago; New York: Rand.
see also: bark is worse than his bite; bark like a dog; harry; hound
nipping at the heels of
Last updated: March 14, 2010
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