Hi everyone! Do you feel like playing a little word game today? I do.
OK, here it is: I will give you the words. Your job is to identify the meanings without searching the Internet. Here is the first word: doggy.
Can you guess the meaning? Surely, you know what a dog is. But what’s a doggy? A doggy can be a small dog or a baby dog. Or, it can be a loving term for a dog of any size.
In English, adding the letter -y to the end of some words can suggest the things they describe are small or well-loved. We call this the diminutive.
What is a diminutive?
A diminutive can express other qualities as well – like that something is familiar, sad, or disliked. Diminutives can show warmth or kindness for a thing or person. They can also be used to insult.
Today, we will explore American English diminutives made from many word endings as well as the prefix mini-.
Learning diminutives can help you recognize variants of English words. It can also offer you a more natural and broader selection of vocabulary as your English becomes more fluent.
-y and -ie
Let’s start by returning to the ending -y, which is sometimes spelled i-e with no change in meaning. For instance, the word doggy can be written d-o-g-g-y or d-o-g-g-i-e.
The -y and i-e endings are used only with some words, such as the nouns birdie, doggie, mommy and daddy.
The words mommy and daddy, as you might guess, don’t refer to small parents. They are terms of familiarity and warmth.
Note the doubling of the middle letter in many of these words. That spelling also applies to some nicknames, like Nikky, taken from Nicole, or Bobby, taken from Robert.
The i-e ending is also used with some adjectives, like sweet, forming the noun sweetie and cute, forming the noun cutie.
Can you guess what sweetie and cutie mean without checking the Internet?
Note that the examples so far today are not suitable for formal English speech or writing.
And take note: Not all English words ending in -y or i-e (or any other form we’ll explore today) make a diminutive meaning. In fact, most do not. The word funny, for example, does not mean “a small amount of fun.”
Then, there is the word ending -ish. The letters i-s-h can be added to the end of many English nouns to make adjectives that mean “somewhat like” or “similar to.” With that in mind, you can likely tell me what the words blueish and reddish mean. Here’s another example: childish. Any guess as to its definition?
By the way, many of these words are suitable for most styles of English speaking and writing, including formal. Some however are more informal. Check a trusted dictionary if you are ever unsure.
-let, -lette and -ette
Next, we have -let and -lette. They sound the same and have the same meaning: smaller than usual. But one is spelled l-e-t-t-e. In other words, it has an extra t-e at the end. Both were borrowed from the French language.
Some examples of the l-e-t spelling are booklet, which is a book with only a few pages; droplet, a very small drop of water; and eyelet, a very small hole. So what, then, might a piglet be?
The longer spelling – l-e-t-t-e – only forms a diminutive in a few English words, like novelette, a short novel.
The closely-related ending e-t-t-e also makes things smaller than their usual size, such as kitchenette. Surely, you can guess its meaning!
Onto words formed with ending l-i-n-g. This ending mainly changes adult animal words into baby animal words. Other times, it expresses affection for a person.
For instance, the word darling means “little dear.” A duckling is a baby duck; and a fingerling can refer to either a baby fish or a very small potato. That’s funnyish, right?
A few years ago, a company called WowWee released another kind of Fingerling – a finger-sized baby animal toy for children.
And finally, we have mini-. It is today’s only prefix. Putting mini- at the start of a word means that thing is smaller or shorter than usual or normal.
Examples include lots of kinds of vehicles, such as a minibus, minicar, minibike and minicab; and women’s clothing, like a miniskirt, minidress and minikini.
Do you have any idea what a minikini is? The original word has been shortened so you may not recognize it. I’ll give you a hint: It’s something worn at the beach.
What do you mean?
Earlier today, I told you that some diminutives can have negative meanings. Some of the terms can be critical or sarcastic, depending on how they are used.
Suppose, for example, you are at a train station trying to buy a ticket. But, the machine is not working right. Someone in line behind you says, “Hey, sweetie, there are people waiting for that machine!” You can guess that they are not expressing affection.
That said, English diminutives can be some of the most useful, natural and endearing words in the English language.
I’m Alice Bryant. And I’m Bryan Lynn.
Alice Bryant wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
Now, you try it! Here are two fun questions to explore on today’s subject. Write your responses in the comments section.
- In today’s word game, we asked you to guess the meanings of some words without searching the Internet for the answers. The words again are: sweetie, cutie, blueish, reddish, childish, piglet and kitchenette.
- Many languages have diminutives. For instance, in Spanish, the diminutive for abuela, which means “grandmother,” is abuelita, which is the affectionate form of the word. In Turkish, the diminutive of köy, which means “village,” is köyceğiz, which means “dear little village.” What are some diminutives in your language?
Words in This Story
guess – v. to form an opinion or give an answer about something when you do not know much about it
prefix – n. a letter or group of letters that is added at the beginning of a word to change its meaning
variant – n. one of two or more different ways to spell or pronounce a word
vocabulary – n. all of the words known and used by a person
nickname – n. a name that is different from your real name but is what your family, friends, etc., call you
formal – adj. suitable for serious or official speech and writing
dictionary – n. a reference book that lists in alphabetical order the words of one language and shows their meanings
novel – n. a long written story usually about imaginary characters and events
hint – n. a small piece of information that helps you guess an answer or do something more easily
sarcastic – adj. using words that mean opposite of what you want to say in order to insult someone, to show irritation, or to be funny