What is a diminutive? Well, chances are that you use diminutives every day without consciously thinking about it. These modified words express tininess, cuteness or affection (sometimes all three at once) and have become so cemented into the English language that the diminutive as a concept outside of linguistics is virtually nonexistent.
A diminutive serves the purpose of signifying the small, or diminished, quality of the subject that’s being referred to. We may not actively recognize the lingual process that occurs when we use diminutives, but it’s safe to say that English is simply teeming with them. Let’s take a moment to appreciate all the ways diminutives have settled into our language and a short look at how other languages engage with them differently.
The Most Common Uses Of Diminutives in English
With first known usage of the word dating back to the 14th century, diminutive owes its name to the Latin deminutivum, a derivation of de + mineuere, meaning “smaller” or “inferior.” That said, the word isn’t very familiar to us due to the common misconception that English doesn’t have any diminutives. But this couldn’t be farther from the truth!
Despite a focus on all things little or precious, diminutives take on many shapes and sizes. Examples range from standalone words, like minivan or baguette (the French love diminutives), to an adjective paired with a name (think “Tiny Tim”), or even a name itself.
The most significant use of diminutives occurs in our fondness for nicknames and pet names, or what linguists call hypocorisms. Whether it’s a Katherine who introduces herself as Kathy or a Robert who goes by Bob, someone who takes on a shorter version of their given name is, in fact, using a diminutive.
Sometimes these shortened spin-offs even become names in their own right. For instance, a lot of people think my name is short for Lillian, when it’s just the plain diminutive, Lili. Other times, the practical function of shortening a longer name is completely lost. If you haven’t figured it out by now, Jack is actually an equally long hypocorism of the name John.
Nicknames, Pet Names and Baby Talk
Though nicknames are incredibly diverse and individual, they are frequently used as terms of endearment and often evoke feelings of familiarity or intimacy. This is most apparent in the pet names and baby talk we use when conversing with children or loved ones. In fact, the word hypocorism comes from the Ancient Greek hypokorizesthai, meaning to speak like a child.
This fits in nicely with the diminutive’s objective to signify smallness, a state of being that is usually associated with children or cute things, like baby animals. And what’s cuter than a small child babbling on to Daddy about fluffy doggies and asking to go wee-wee on the potty? Actually, the -y/-ie ending found in many pet names is perhaps the most common diminutive ending around, even among grown-ups. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t have some slightly embarrassing nickname for their significant other, like hubby, pookie or cutie patootie.
Shortening Long, Boring Words
Nicknames and pet names are not the only familiar diminutives out there. Many diminutives don’t signal literal smallness but conveniently shorten longer, more cumbersome words. These clipped words range from whimsical slang terms (preggo and bougie, for example), to everyday phrases you don’t think twice about (why even bother with delicatessen when you can just say deli?), or bland words that need a dash of something extra, as with underwear and undies or panties (though these two are probably more creepy than adorable).
Common Diminutive Affixes
Many diminutives, however, are not always easily recognizable. These kinds of diminutives usually contain affixes. Affixes are words, or partial words, that can be attached to a base word to create an entirely new word and meaning. Prefixes and suffixes are the most common forms of affixes, as in uninvolved or manhood. The same principle goes for diminutives. Simply add an -ette to kitchen, and violà, you’ve got a fancy new word for your tiny counter and two-plate cooktop passing for a cooking space.
Other common examples of diminutive affixes include mini-, -et, -ling and, of course, -y/-ie. Now it makes perfect sense why we call smaller (cuter) baby ducks ducklings. Circling back to nicknames, this list can be expanded to include endings favored by affectionate parents or grandparents, like -poo, -pop or -kin.
Diminutives In Australian English
If you thought we’ve already covered a large variety of English diminutives, hang on tight because we’re heading Down Under, where diminutives enjoy a much more rich and lively existence. Australians can’t seem to get enough of abbreviating any and all words, with diminutives making up a large part of their slang vocabulary.
In Australia, barbie is short for barbecue, mozzie for mosquito, uni for university and, yes, you also have them to blame for the word selfie. Actually, you can thank Aussies for some of your favorite slang terms, such as doggo or totes (if you remember the noughties).
Frequently, these diminutives are chummy or sarcastic, even self-deprecatingly ironic. There’s something quite cheeky about calling motorcycle gang members bikies and the humor is not lost on McDonald’s when Australians christened them with Maccas, which is now trademarked by the company.
Diminutives In Other Languages
There’s a good chance that if you’re googling “what is a diminutive?” it’s because your German/French/Polish/etc. teacher mentioned that you should learn them for your studies. Diminutives in other languages can be a mixed bag. On one hand, they often have special grammar rules that make them easier to use (in many Germanic languages, diminutives always use one grammatical gender). On the other hand, the nuances of diminutives across other languages can be pretty complex.
Diminutives in German
Take German, for example. Also known as Verniedlichungen, the most common diminutive is the suffix –chen, and it always uses the gender das (a useful shortcut for when you can’t remember a noun’s grammatical gender). But other diminutives can be taken as a clear indicator that you’re speaking with someone from Austria or Swabia. These dialects contain diminutive endings like -le and -li, as in the famous German pasta dish, Spätzle.
Meanwhile, some diminutives carry more controversial connotations, like the word Fräulein (the German equivalent of Miss) which literally translates to “little woman.” This word is no longer commonly used thanks to 1970s feminists who pointed out it’s belittling for adult women to be viewed as incomplete, or lesser, without men. (The unmarried Miss is lingually inferior to both the married Mrs. and Mr., which doesn’t have a diminutive form for unmarried men.)
Repetition in Chinese and Italian
In other languages, diminutives take on completely different forms. In Mandarin Chinese, diminutive cuteness is amplified by simply repeating a word, like 猫猫 or MāoMāo (cat-cat). In Italian, you can even have a double diminutive, as with the word for house: casa (normal), casetta (small) and casettina (very small).