Many languages have diminutives.

Bonnie Mills, Writing for
6-minute read
Episode #480


Today's episode is about diminutives. Words like doggie, first names like Bill, and pet names like sweetie pie are examples. Diminutives indicate an item is smaller than something else, for example, or are used to show affection between partners or toward children or pets. In other situations, using a diminutive or pet name might be considered inappropriate. Keep listening to find out when you shouldn't use a diminutive.

What Are Diminutives?

The word diminutive means “small,” and diminutives often express smallness. A piglet, for example, is smaller than a pig, and a cigarette is shorter and narrower than a cigar. In English, you often create a diminutive by adding a suffix. Common diminutive suffixes include -y and -ie, which are pronounced the same, (1) -let and -kin (2), and -ock and -sie. (3) Diminutives made with these suffixes include Billy, coverlet, munchkin, hillock, and onesie. Many diminutive words in English originate from French and use the diminutive suffixes -et and -ette. A short list is islet, tablet, and midget with the -et suffix (4) and suffragette, majorette, kitchenette, and coquette with the -ette suffix. (5) 

Another way to form diminutives is to chop off the end of a word in casual speech. Television turns into the telly if you're in Britain. You can use the barbie, from barbecue, in Australia. You can be anywhere when you say bike instead of bicycle or auto in place of automobile

Rhyming Nicknames

Diminutives are for people's names as well as for everyday words. The most common diminutive first names in English are simply shortened forms of the original name, often the first syllable or sound, as in Deb for Deborah or Mike for Michael. (6) Other shortened names originate from the middle or end of the name, as in Beth for Elizabeth or Drew for Andrew. Rhyming nicknames also crop up a lot. Men named Robert used to “be known as Rob, Hob, Dob or Nob.” (7) Interestingly, although Hob, Dob, and Nob are no longer used this way, we do have last names related to these nicknames, such as Hobson and Dobson. And, of course, Bob rhymes with Rob. We also have Bill and Will for William, and Rick and Dick for Richard

Pronunciation Trouble Leads to Diminutives

Yet other first names originated because of problems individuals once had or currently have with pronunciation, especially children. For instance, “the difficult Norman r sound in medieval English names was often dropped … or changed ... Likewise, the th sound was often changed.” (8) Examples are Babs for Barbara, Molly for Mary, and Dot for Dorothy. In addition, young children might have problems pronouncing an older sibling's name. Two real-world examples that come to mind are Suh-Suh for Samantha and Mo for Samara. How cute!

As previously mentioned, the -y and -ie suffixes commonly create diminutives, and there are countless first names with these suffixes. A line from the film Good Will Hunting illustrates how common such names are. The character Will (undoubtedly short for William) is trying to impress a woman in a bar and rattles off the names of his 12 fake brothers: “Marky, Ricky, Danny, Terry, Mikey, Davey, Timmy, Tommy, Joey, Robby, Johnny, and Brian.” (9) This pretend Brian is an exception here, though if he were real, his siblings would likely nickname him Bri. Girls' names ending in -y or -ie are also abundant, as in Sally, Becky, Millie, Minnie, Evie, and Connie. Connie is often short for Constance, although Bonnie is definitely not short for Bonstance, as someone once asked this Bonnie. Oh the horror!


About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.