In ordinary talk, diminutive is an adjective meaning 'very small'.
In the study of grammar, the technical adjective or noun '[a] diminutive' denotes a word or a suffix used to characterize something as small, often with other connotations such as affection. English forms diminutive nouns by the addition of suffixes, and one prefix, 'mini-' (usually with a hyphen): otherwise the notion of 'smallness' is communicated by adjectives. For example, 'duckling' is formed from 'duck' + the diminutive suffix '-ling' and means a young (not yet adult) duck, as a 'gosling' is an immature goose; similarly, a piglet is a young pig; and in Scotland, a female child may often be called, as a mark of fondness, "my wee lassie". It is not often realized that the affectionate 'darling' means 'little dear', being formed from 'dear' + '-ling'. Forenames are commonly shortened, and sometimes lengthened, to make affectionate pet-names, as in Jimmie: see Conventional abbreviations for forenames for a list of some of these.
Diminutives can be used in combination. The common children's stuffed toy, the teddy bear was named for US President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919; President 1901-1909): 'Ted' is a conventional abbreviation for the forename 'Theodore'; '-dy' is an affectionate diminutive suffix; and the whole serves as a further diminutive when applied to a nursery form of an animal that can be very dangerous to humans. (It can be further diminished to using the single word 'teddy' in place of the more formal 'teddy bear'.) Sometimes diminutives may be derogatory rather than affectionate - the suffix -erel/-rel gave us 'doggerel', 'mongrel', 'scoundrel and 'wastrel' - together with the ambiguous dotterel.
Some common diminutive suffixes in English are:
- -kin or -kins (of Dutch origin), in such words as the motherese babykins, and the nursery lambkin and mannykin (often addressed to a baby boy in Scotland - not to be confused with mannikin or mannequin). Other more regular 'adult' words in the vocabulary of English include cannikin ("A small can or drinking vessel", OED); catkin, the flower of certain trees like the hazel, which by their soft fur resemble a cat, or cat's tail; and napkin, a little 'nape' (obsolete word for 'tablecloth').
- -et and its variants -ette (from French), -etto and -etti (Italian), -it(t)a and -ito (Spanish). This suffix has formed many nouns, for example diskette ('a small disc/k [for computer memory storage]); spaghetti ('small strings' - spaghi in Italian - there can, in Italian, be a double diminutive 'spaghettini'); fajita (a amall strip of steak - faja 'belt, strip, sash' in Spanish); pipette, originally a small flute; cigarette ('a small cigar, seen as inferior because made of cheap tobacco wrapped in paper rather than 'proper' leaves wrapped in leaf'); and señorita (a 'small' or junior, i.e. young, unmarried, woman - Spanish señora is equivalent to Mrs) may be among those familiar to students. Others include clarinet (a diminutive of French clarine, a kind of bell - related to Middle English 'clarion', originally 'a war trumpet'); both palette and pallet; courgette (a small courge - French, 'a gourd'); falsetto; kitchenette; and both marionette and puppet. Words such as suffragette and usherette illustrate how the '-ette' diminutive is often used to belittle women and lay them open to contempt or derision. (Suffragette was "originally mocking" - Cresswell, 2009.) When this suffix was added to nouns ending in '-l[-]', it became '-et[te]', as in 'bracelet' (French 'little arm') and 'roulette' ('small wheel'), and in English evolved into an independent suffix '-let', as in 'armlet', 'booklet', eyelet and islet, 'leaflet', 'tablet' and the more modern 'applet'. and 'notelet'.
- -ie or -y, often following a double consonant. This is common in domestic, often nursery words like Mummy, Daddy, dearie, doggy and willy (for penis), and is often applied to pet-names like Andie, Dandy and Sandy; Katie/y, Molly and Betty; Sammy, Paddy, Bertie and Jimmy.
- Derivatives of the Latin diminutive suffix -illus ('-illa' in the feminine); '-illo' and '-ello' in Italian and Spanish; '-elle' in French ('-eau' in the masculine):
armadillo 'small armoured [person]'; 'bacillus' ('a little rod' (Latin baculus) after the shape of the type species); caudillo; cigarillo; flotilla (diminutive of Spanish flota, 'a fleet'); guerilla; peccadillo ('a little sin' (Spanish pecado, Latin peccatum); both pastel and pastille; scintilla, vanilla (diminutive of archaic Spanish vaina (Latin vāgīna, 'sheath')).
- Less directly obvious as diminutives, maybe, are bureau (diminutive of bure 'coarse woollen cloth' with which writing desks were originally covered); castle (diminutive of Latin castra 'fort'); pencil (diminutive of Latin penis, 'tail'); and quarrel (diminutive of Latin verb queror 'to complain'); codicil ('a little [addition to a] codex, or volume of laws'; a subsequent change); morsel (diminutive formed from French verb mordre 'to bite', 'to chew'); organelle ('a little organ; a functional sub-unit within a cell'); quadrille (a little cuadro (Spanish, from Latin quadrum), applied variously to a team of four riders and a square dance for four couples, etc); and cello, shortening of violoncello, diminutive of violene (Italian) 'double-bass viol'.
- The Italian (and to a lesser extent Spanish) diminutives -ino, -ina (feminine), -ine and -ini are found in Italian words like zucchini (diminutive of zucca, 'pumpkin' or 'gourd'); pastini (small pasta); bambino (diminutive of Italian bambo 'silly', and thus infant child); maraschino (diminutive of marasca, variety of cherry); neutrino ('a small neutron'); tambourine (French, 'little drum') and figurine.
- The suffix '-ine' is more usually a termination forming adjectives, or abstract nouns, with the general sense of 'of' or 'to do with', etc, and more particularly in geology with the sense of 'sharing the characteristics of' or 'derived from' or 'originating from' a particular rock or mineral. Sometimes '-ine' is merely a feminine ending.
-leus/-ola/-ole/-oli/-ola/-olo/-olus/-ula/-ule/-uleus/-ulum (Francish-Spanish-Italian-Latin dim., mainly 17th century-on): alveolus, areola, areole, article, cannoli, casserole, cerulean, cuniculus, curriculum, Equuleus, ferrule, formula, granule, homunculus, insula, malleolus, majuscule, minuscule, nodule, nucleus, nucleolus, particle, pergola, pendulum, pianola, piccolo, ravioli, raviolo, reticle, reticule, reticulum, spatula, tarantula, vacuole, vinculum, vocable
mini- (commercial miniature compound): minibar, miniblind, miniboss, minibus, minicar (1949), minicassette (1967), minicomputer (1963), minigame, minigun, minimall, minimarket (1965), minimart, mini-nuke, minischool, miniseries (1974), miniskirt (1965), minitower, minivan, miniver (1250), mini-LP, mini-me, MiniDisc