Wanted: A replacement for “petty”

Eduardo Bohorquez and Deniz Devrim of Transparencia Mexicana, our national chapter in Mexico, recently published an article arguing for the abolishment of the word “petty” in the term “petty bribery”. They point out that petty bribery in fact generates substantial costs to society, both monetary and non-monetary. For example, surveys find that in Mexico households with the minimum income spend 33 per cent of their monthly income on bribes.

A dictionary definition of “petty” reads “of little or no importance or consequence”. Losing 33 per cent of your salary can hardly be considered negligible. But this is not just a question of semantics. As the article states, the choice of words can “reflect attitudes, influence action, as well as the pace of reform”.

The estimated costs of household bribery in Mexico exceeded 32 billion pesos in 2010.

Which got me thinking: what could be a good alternative to replace “petty”? It should keep the idea of “small” while ideally having a negative connotation (virus?) or being value-free. Just two ideas come to mind for the moment: household bribery and micro-bribery.

Household bribery has several downsides including that a) not just households but also companies are affected by having to pay small bribes and b) it could possibly be misinterpreted to mean a situation in which a parent “bribes” a child with chocolate so they get their homework done.

Micro-bribery has the advantage of being value-free. Also, the prefix “micro” is extensively used within social sciences and development, including contexts in which small amounts have big impacts (e.g. microcredit). On the other hand, colloquially “micro” could be too close to “tiny” and may again run the risk of minimising a significant problem.

Surely there are better ideas out there?

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