As the area and its people underwent a significant stage of the nation-building in the last hundred years, the term, even in the historic context, can only loosely be considered as merely a contemporary equivalent for the proper modern terms such as Ukraine and its derivatives.
As the term has become an archaic one, its anachronistic usage in the modern context may be considered offensive by some Ukrainians.
In the seventeenth century the Russian usage of the name was extended and transformed to Malorossiya which means Little Russia rather than Little Rus’. In English the term Little Russia is often applied in both contexts although some authors do make a distinction and use Little Rus’ and Little Russia selectively, depending on the context.
The first recorded usage of the term is attributed to Boleslaus George II of Halych. He named himself «dux totius Rusiæ Minoris» in a letter to Dietrich von Altenburg, the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights in 1335. The name was used by Patriarch Callistus I of Constantinople in 1361 when he created two metropolitan sees: the one called Great Rus’ in Vladimir and Kiev and the other one called Little Rus’ with the centers in Galich (Halych) and Novgorodok (Navahrudak). The king Casimir III of Poland, was called "the king of Lechia and Little Rus’". According to Mykhaylo Hrushevsky Little Rus’ was the Halych-Volhynian Principality, and after its downfall, the name ceased to be used.
In the post-medieval period, the name of Little Rus’ is known to first be used by Eastern Orthodox clergy of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, for example by influential cleric and writer Ioan Vyshensky (1600, 1608), Metropolitan Matthew of Kiev and All Rus’ (1606), Bishop Ioann (Biretskoy) of Peremyshl, Metropolitan Isaiah (Kopinsky) of Kiev, Archimandrite Zacharius Kopystensky of Kiev Pechersk Lavra, etc. The term has been applied to all Orthodox Ruthenian lands of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Vyshensky addressed to "the Christians of Little Russia, brotherhoods of Lvov and Vilna" and Kopystensky wrote "Little Russia, or Kiev and Lithuania".
The term was adopted in seventeenth century by Tsardom of Russia to refer to the Cossack Hetmanate of Left-bank Ukraine, when the latter fell under the Russian protection after the Treaty of Pereyaslav (1654). From those times, the official title of Russian Tsars, and later Emperors, gained the wording (literal translation): "The Sovereign of all Rus’: the Great, the Little, and the White."
The term Little Rus’ has been used in letters of the Cossack Hetmans Bohdan Khmelnytsky and Ivan Sirko. The Archimandrite of the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra Innokentiy Gizel wrote that the Russian people is a unity of three branches: Great Russia, Little Russia and White Russia under the only legal authority of the Moscow Tsars. The term Little Russia has been used in Ukrainian chronicle by Samiylo Velychko, in a chronicle of the Hieromonk Leontiy (Bobolinski), in "Thesaurus" by Archimandrite Ioannikiy (Golyatovsky).
The usage of the name was later broadened to loosely apply also to the parts of the Right-bank Ukraine when it was annexed by Russia in the end of the eighteenth century upon the partitions of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In the 18th and 19th centuries Russian Imperial administrative units the Little Russian Governorate and eponymous General Governorship were formed and existed for several decades before being split and renamed in subsequent administrative reforms.
Up until the very end of the 19th century Little Russia was a prevailing designation for the much of the modern territory of Ukraine controlled by the Russian Empire as well as for its people and their language as can be seen from its usage in numerous scholarly, literary and artistic works. For instance, "Little Russia" has been preferred by the famous Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in his private diary (1857—1858). Ukrainophile historians Mykhaylo Maksymovych, Nikolay Kostomarov, Dmytro Bahaliy, Volodymyr Antonovych acknowledged the fact that during Russo-Polish wars "Ukraine" had only a geographical meaning of borderlands of both states but "Little Russia" was an ethnic name of Little (Southern) Russian people. In his prominent work "Two Russian nationalities" Kostomarov uses Southern Russia and Little Russia interchangeably. Mykhailo Drahomanov titled his first fundamental historic work "Little Russia in its literature" (1867-1870). Different prominent artists (e.g. Mykola Pymonenko, Konstiantyn Trutovsky, Nikolay Sergeyev, photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, etc.), many of whom were natives from the territory of modern-day Ukraine, used "Little Russia" in titles of their paintings of Ukrainian landscapes.
The term "Little Russian language" was used by the state authorities in the first Russian Empire Census conducted as late as in 1897.
Another interpretation maintains that the such usage is merely an acknowledgement of the fact that while the region is now a territory of Ukraine with its history being a part of the Ukrainian heritage, the area was a birthplace of the Russian culture as well, even though the latter (as well as the Ukrainian one) grew very far beyond the territories of their common birthplace.
Some Ukrainian authors define the "Little Russianness" (Малоросійство) as provincialism complex they see in a part of the Ukrainian community due to its "lengthy existence within the Russian Empire" and describe it as an "indifferent, and sometimes a negative, stance towards the Ukrainian national-statehood traditions and aspirations, and often, the active support of the Russian culture and imperial policies". Mykhailo Drahomanov, who used the terms Little Russia and Little Russian in his historic works, applied the term "Little Russianness" to Russified Ukrainians, whose national character was formed under the "alien pressure and influence", and, who as a consequence, in his opinion adopted, predominantly the "worse qualities of other nationalities and rejected of the better of their own". Ukrainian conservative ideologue and politician Vyacheslav Lypynsky defined the term as "the malaise of stateless people". The same inferiority complex was applied to the Ukrainians of Galicia with respect to Poland ("gente ruthenus, natione polonus"). Similar term "Magyarony" was applied to Magyarized Ukrainians in Transcarpathia who advocated for union of that region with Hungary .
Another criticized aspect labeled as "Little Russianness" is a stereotypal image of uneducated, rustic Ukrainians exhibiting little or no self-esteem. For example, a popular Ukrainian singer and performer Andriy Danylko in his stage personality of uncouth and surzhyk-speaking Verka Serduchka was accused of perpetrating this demeaning image. Andriy himself usually laughs off such criticism of his work and many art-critics point instead towards the fact that his success with the Ukrainian public is rooted in an unquestionable authenticity of Andriy's artistic image.