Standard dictionaries will tell you simply that a DIMINUTIVE is a word denoting something small or little—true enough, as far as it goes. Most languages in the Indo-European family have suffixes that “diminish” a word so as to create a smaller or younger version of that word. In English, a little book is a booklet, a tiny duck is a duckling, and a small dog is a doggy or doggie. These native English suffixes seem particularly well suited to the farmyard, where we may find a piglet, a lambkin, or a gosling. Quite frequently such expressions become terms of endearment, without referring in any way to physical size: your poochie or your honeybunny could be a hulking lover of six-foot-five. An apparently sane man or woman may snuggle up to an enormous old hound, cooing fatuously, “Izzums an ittums-bittums doggie-woggie?” Curiously enough, diminutives can also express disparagement, conveying more than a hint of a sneer. The King of Tonga, Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, is a man of gargantuan proportions, who tips the scales at almost a quarter ton; still, for all his bulk, one might describe him as a princeling. (That would be bad manners, but good usage.) Clearly, then, diminutives can denote more than smallness, though smallness is certainly one aspect of their message.
The term DIMINUTIVE originated with the ancient Roman grammarians, who called a “diminishing” word of this sort a deminutivum. Greek scholars of an earlier period had used a rather different term, a word that comes into English as HYPOCORISTIC. This exotic label was derived from a Greek verb that meant “to address as a child,” or “to call a lover by a pet-name.” Therefore baby-talk and childish or amatory nicknames can be properly (if pedantically) described as HYPOCORISTIC. Nicknames that use a standard suffix—Tommy or Willie or Johnny—are also true diminutives. The Greek term helps to remind us that many diminutives are more appropriate to the nursery or the bedroom than to the barnyard. In discussing Latin examples, L. R. Palmer states the case with precision and economy:
Such formations do not, of course, merely denote smallness . . . , but, with the added connotations ‘dear little’, ‘poor little’ and the like, express a whole range of emotional attitudes—endearment, playfulness, jocularity, familiarity, and contempt.
Unfortunately, the English language is not richly supplied with native Germanic diminutives, though modern German has a good repertoire of such words. The Scots dialect fares much better than Standard English, as almost any poem of Robert Burns will reveal. Of all modern European languages, Italian is the most expressive in this regard, for it is able to create double and even triple diminutives by employing a whole variety of suffixes. Probably the Italians inherited this gift from the ancient Romans, whose Latin language was extraordinarily fertile in its capacity to diminish words. Many Latin diminutives have left their mark on English, though we may no longer recognize them all as “little” words. In this short chapter (< OF chapitre < L capitulum, “little head”), we’ll see the basic system by which Latin created diminutive forms, and we’ll acquire some ability to recognize their English derivatives. We won’t explore the subject exhaustively, since the aim for this topic is more general awareness than full linguistic control.