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A diminutive is a word form or suffix that indicates smallness. Also called hypocoristic.
In his Dictionary of English Grammar (2000), R.L. Trask points out that the English language "usually forms diminutives by suffixing -y or -ie, often to a reduced form of the source word, as in hanky for a handkerchief, doggie for dog and Tommie for Thomas. But we also use -ette, as in statuette and kitchenette."
Other examples of diminutives include booklet, a small book; circlet, a small circle; duckling, a young duck; hillock a small hill; novelette, a short novel; wavelet, a ripple or small wave; rivulet, a small brook or stream; gosling, a young goose; coronet, a small crown; eyelet, a small hole; and droplet, a tiny drop.
From the Latin deminut, "to lessen"
- "My parents named me William, but my friends call me Billy or just Bill. Except for one aunt who calls me Willy."
"In English, productive diminutive derivation hardly exists at all, despite the existence of isolated baby forms such as handies, doggie or birdie (one can say girlie but not *mannie, auntie but not *unclie, horsie but not *goatie, and so on."
The Trick of Shrinking
"A charming trick almost every language has is the 'shrinking' of someone or something you like by the use of diminutives. The diminutive of Charles is Charlie. The diminutive of William is Billy. The diminutive of star is starlet. The diminutive of pig is piglet. The Olympics of diminutives is won hands-down by the Italians, who have literally dozens of different forms of the diminutive, each conveying its own special nuance of feeling for the noun undergoing the shrinking."
A Borrowed Italian Diminutive
"The food is so good because the ingredients are excellent, like the bread that is made especially for 'ino at Blue Ribbon Bakery down the block. But 'ino, a word ending that is an all-purpose Italian diminutive, also offers a European-style warmth."
Contrasting Attitudes Toward Diminutives
Traditionally, the term 'diminutive' has been used to refer to words which denote smallness and possibly also expressing an attitude. The expressed attitude can be either positive or negative, i.e. either affectionate or derogatory, depending on the specific interplay of linguistic and situational factors in a given context."
"Diminutives are titles of endearment. Dr. Johnson calling Goldsmith 'Goldy' did equal honor to both."
"'Fanny' is a patronizing diminutive. It makes the author Frances Burney sound the harmless, childish, priggish girl-woman that many critics want her to be--as if the heroine of Mansfield Park has set up as a novelist. Let her have an adult full name."
David Klass, You Don't Know Me. Square Fish, 2001
Anna Wierzbicka, Cross-Cultural Pragmatics: The Semantics of Human Interaction. Walter de Gruyter, 1991
(Barry Farber, How to Learn Any Language. Citadel, 1991
Eric Asimov, "An Italian Sandwich Shop That Takes the Diminutive." The New York Times, February 10, 1999
Margaret Anne Doody, Frances Burney: The Life in the Works. Rutgers University Press, 1988