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Diminutive

The diminutive always has a relationship of abridgement with another full word. The terms "sis" or "bro," for example, are common examples of the diminutive, with the original words being sister and brother. While not very common in English, the diminutive is quite widespread in other languages. Russian is a good example of this. In fact, the term "vodka" is literally a diminutive of the Russian word for water.

Definition and practice

You probably use dozens of informal words when referring to little people or things, expressing affection for loved ones, or describing something unimportant. In case you haven't done an inventory on the kinds of words that would qualify, consider the following questions:

  • What do the words “baby, calf, puppy, kitten, and cub” have in common? 
    Answer: They're all words that refer to the youngest, smallest members of a given species. 
  • Pointing to a child and saying “Here’s my funny sis!” shows how the demonstrative adjective “funny” is used with the the diminutive “sis”, which means the smallest, youngest female family member.
  • What do words like mommy, daddy, sonny, lovey, cutesie, and sweetie have in common? 
    Answer: They are all words that connote affection in an informal way.
  • A tougher question: What do words like dwarfed, droplet, clouded, and tiny have in common? Answer: Each word, in its own way, characterizes something as small, unimportant, or somehow rendered insignificant.

The above examples are all diminutives. They are formed by affixes, or additions, to root words, such as cute, mom, sweet, dwarf, cloud, for the purpose of referencing smallness, affection, or unimportance.

Four main ways to use the diminutive

When talking to small children, many adults invoke childlike voices and mannerisms, when making reference to toys, animals, or the children themselves. 

For example: "How's my little lambie this morning?" "Lamb" here being the nickname for a newborn baby.

Diminutives are also often used when talking to pets. A dog named Wolfgang, for instance, might be commonly referred to as "Wolfy" by its owners.

Diminutives that reference unimportance may factor into a range of settings, from casual conversations and work-related banter to classroom lectures and political debates. Examples are underlined below:

"The dinky little hot tub they installed at my complex is barely big enough for three people."

"He may be a well-moneyed greybeard with a storied list of achievements, but on the national stage, he's known to most Americans as a political gadfly."

Some diminutives that refer to youth are formed by adult nouns with a suffix (duckling, piglet) others bear no resemblance to their adult counterparts. 

Examples are: chick, kitten, and toddler, which respectively refer to the young hen, cat, and human. 

Using caution before using the diminutive 

Cute and affectionate diminutives are only appropriate in certain settings, especially if you happen to be male. In fact, men are best advised to keep such words behind closed doors, as when referring to a loved one or young offspring. As you could probably imagine, words like "baby" and "sweetie" would draw some uneasy stares if spoken in the midst of coworkers at a construction site; or in a boardroom meeting, for that matter. Diminutive speech may contain ambiguity in these contexts, since it lacks simple, clear meanings in these situations.

Even if you are a woman, cute and affectionate diminutives could be out of place in certain adult settings. Examples include those in a formal office environment, where  a woman might not be taken seriously if her language was deemed childish or too informal for the setting. 

Furthermore, it is important to beware of what you might convey with the use of a diminutive. While such words might seem appropriate for a group of 1st graders, those same words might not go over so well with 5th or 6th graders, who are likely eager to prove their grown-up communication skills. 

Depending on the heatedness of a given topic, diminutives should also be used with caution on Internet discussion boards where it is often difficult to convey personality or intent.

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