We’re not looking for the most beautiful word in the world. We’re not looking for the funniest word in the world. We’re looking for the cutest word, and that’s going to require an entirely different set of criteria.
What makes something cute, though? “Cute” is pleasing, much like “beautiful” and “funny.” But “cute” isn’t a joke (not really), and it’s not necessarily awe-inspiring in the way that “beautiful” is.
The dictionary defines “cute” as “attractive, especially in a dainty way“; “affectedly or mincingly pretty or clever; precious.” So cute is…mini, fun-sized beauty? Something you want to smoosh in a fit of cute aggression to make it even smaller? Or are cute things cute because they remind us of small things, namely children, small animals and babies?
Without overthinking it too much, here are examples of the kinds of words various people on the internet came up with when asked to identify the cutest word in the world (or the English language, at least):
Right away, we can already see that the words that sound cute to us are words we associate with actual cute things, especially children. This is not a phenomenon without precedent, either. Many linguists believe we can’t separate our reaction to a word from its meaning. And in this case, words like “tummy” and “mommy” are inherently made cuter because kids use them a lot (or is it more that we use them to talk to kids?).
If you look closer, you might be able to identify a certain lexical pattern to these words. In English, -y endings can sometimes “cuten” a pre-existing word, or make them sound more endearing. You see this with nicknames a lot: Bill versus Billy, Susan versus Suzie, etc.
Grammatically speaking, this is what’s known as a “diminutive” form of a word. Diminutives imply that the thing you’re referring to is small, precious, cute and/or familiar. Think: “doggie,” “cutie,” etc. This is hardly the only form diminutives come in, but it’s a common example. Some diminutives, though they still connote a sense of familiarity, are mostly used to shorten long, cumbersome words. So a “delicatessen” becomes a “deli,” or, if you’re Australian, a “barbecue” becomes a “barbie.”
Other languages have their own version of diminutive forms, too. In French, you can add an -ette suffix to certain words to connote their daintiness. Germans use the suffix -chen, and Mandarin Chinese speakers use doubled-up words to create this effect (like, for instance, “cat-cat”). In Spanish, you can add the suffix -ito/-ita (or -illo/-illa) to convey a sense of warmth. And in Russian, you could add a -ka or even an -ochka to the end of certain words.
There are a couple additional things we could take away from this. One is that, in certain languages at least, shortening words makes them cuter. In a way, this reflects the notion that small things are cute, and so cute words are small.
Another observation you could make is that adding a certain inflection to words makes them cuter (like any of the suffixes mentioned above). In almost all of the languages mentioned, diminutive forms lend a certain bounciness to the rhythm of the word. You can even see this in regular words people tend to think of as cute, like “bubble,” “snuggle,” “tinkle” and “giggle.” Is there something inherently cute about that “el” sound at the end? Or what about “jubilee” and “bumblebee,” which sound delightful all on their own?
Spoiler alert: there’s no way to definitively say for sure what the cutest word in the world is. But we can narrow it down to words that match the following criteria:
- It has a cute meaning or association
- It’s a diminutive
- It’s short (or, at least, dainty-sounding)
- It sounds bouncy or buoyant
And so, with all of that said and taken into account, may we suggest an option: pinky.