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デジタル大辞林 gives the definition of [小っ酷い]【こっぴどい】 as

非常にひどい。手厳しい。

But I find this strange. Why would 小っ酷い mean 非常にひどい? Isn't prefixal 小【こ】- sort of a diminutive? At least, that's how it works in words like 「小雨」少し降る雨, 「小柄」=体格が普通より小さいこと, and even the similar-looking 形容詞 「小恥ずかしい」ちょっときまりが悪い.

Is there some rhyme or reason as to why the 小 in 小っ酷い doesn't seem to behave like a diminutive, or is this just one of those things that merely is?

  • That's an interesting question! Perhaps "small" here is something negative? Might be related to sense 5 of 少 in the 大辞泉: 名詞や用言などに付いて、軽んじたり、ややばかにしたりするような意を表す。「—せがれ」「—利口」「—ざかしい」 – blutorange Apr 3 '15 at 18:46
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    There are 67 instances of こっぴど, only one instance of こっ酷, and no instance of 小っ酷/小酷/小っぴど in the BCCWJ corpus. MS-IME only gives こっ酷い, and ATOK refuses to convert it to kanji at all. So this was lexicalized long ago, and I think almost no one recognize it's 小 when using this word. – naruto Apr 4 '15 at 10:47
  • @naruto Ah, I see. I had only heard the word in a television show, so I wasn't sure how it was typically written. That's good to know, thanks! – senshin Apr 4 '15 at 19:54
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There is a difference in usage and meaning between 「こ」 and 「こっ」.

While 「こ」 is generally used as diminutive, 「こっ」 is used for different meanings and nuances.

デジタル大辞泉 defines 「こっ」 as:

[接頭]《接頭語「こ(小)」に促音が加わったもの》形容詞、ときに動詞に付いて、いささか、相当に、はなはだしく、などの意を添える。「―ぱずかしい」「―ぴどい」「―ぱずれる」

My translation:

[Prefix] 《Geminated version of prefix 「こ(小)」》Attached to adjectives and sometimes verbs for added meanings of "slightly", "considerably", "heavily", etc. 「―ぱずかしい」「―ぴどい」「―ぱずれる」

Note that unlike 「こ」, 「こっ」 cannot be attached to nouns. (Your examples 「小雨」 and 「小柄」 are in the structure "小 + Noun": therefore, it is not a fair comparison.)

Thus, at least by dictionary definitions, there is nothing strange with what 「こっぴどい」 means, which is 「とてもひどい」.

If I were to add my own perspective here, the word 「ひどい」 contains a fairly negative subjective value judgement to begin with. In other words, it would not be very natural to say 「すこしひどい」 or the like.

In conclusion, what the prefix 「こっ」 means depends on (1) the word that follows and (2) the context and what the speaker means to express. For instance, people do say 「こっぱずかしい」 to mean both "a little embarrassed" and "very embarrassed".

Advanced learners might also need to know that 「こっ」 is sometimes used more for the good rhythm it gives to one's speech than for the added meaning/nuance. In particular, the small 「っ」 combined with a word starting in the p consonant gives the explosive kind of rhythm. The p sound is rare in the language to begin with, so we "create" it by using rendaku with words starting with a は-line syllable. The three examples above from デジタル大辞泉 should tell you something about it -- 「―ずかしい」「―どい」「―ずれる」.

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