From The Wrecker by R. L. Stevenson and L. Osbourne, chapter X, published 1892:

At this I had another intuition. A negative of a street scene, taken unconsciously when I was absorbed in other thought, rose in my memory with not a feature blurred: a view, from Bellairs's door as we were coming down, of muddy roadway, passing drays, matted telegraph wires, a China-boy with a basket on his head, and (almost opposite) a corner grocery with the name of Dickson in great gilt letters.
“Yes,” said I, “you are right; he would change it. And anyway, I don't believe it was his name at all; I believe he took it from a corner grocery beside Bellairs's.”
“As like as not,” said Jim, still standing on the side-walk with contracted brows. “Well, what shall we do next?” I asked. “The natural thing would be to rush the schooner,” he replied. “But I don't know. I telephoned the captain to go at it head down and heels in air; he answered like a little man; and I guess he's getting around.

What do you take little or little man to mean in this sentence?

  • 1
    It's more old slang. I'd have no idea what "heads down and heels in the air" implies either. I'd guess "little man" means "timid and weak" but it's only a guess.
    – James K
    Oct 1 at 12:44
  • Besides its literal meaning, these days "little man" often refers to a small boy who is looking or acting a bit grown-up. In fantasy it can mean a leprechaun or similar. Some fictional characters use it as a joking name for a friend. No other idea what it might have meant in the 1890s.
    – Peter
    Oct 1 at 13:35
  • 1
    I wonder why this question was downvoted. This question is very difficult actually and each answer is much appreciated.
    – philphil
    Oct 1 at 14:14
  • @ James K - "I'd have no idea what (go at it )"heads down and heels in the air" implies either." - I think it means something like "plunge head first into work" - exaggerated, though.
    – philphil
    Oct 1 at 14:58
  • @ all- I found a definition in the Collins Dictionary - collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/little-man - maybe this fits the context. There is also a definition in the OED - it says "a footman" - oed.com/search/advanced/…
    – philphil
    Oct 1 at 20:30


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