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The 'ette' suffix has gone the way of the corsette

Mar 29, 2015

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan has been thinking about diminutives lately, particularly "ette."

"The word 'cigarette' is clearly more diminutive than 'bullet,' but they actually share the same diminutive suffix," Curzan says. 

"I did an interview recently about suffixes for women – like 'ess,' 'ette,' and 'trix,' and it had me thinking about some etymological facts that not everyone is aware of about the history of 'ette.'

Curzan says 'ette' only recently became used as a feminine suffix for women, such as "suffragette."

  'When it comes into English, it is a diminutive usually for things, as in 'roulette' for a little wheel, or 'musette' for a small bagpipe. 'Kitchenette' is pretty new, as in the last 100 years or so," Curzan explains.

"When the suffix 'ette' comes into English, it comes with all these French words that use  it: 'planchette,' which was a little board, and 'pincette,' which was a small tweezers.

Curzan says as the French words moved into English, people started to take the 'ette' suffix and attach it to new things to mean a little thing, like 'kitchenette,' 'towelette,' and 'cigarette.'

She notes that in English we seem to use the "ette" and "et" suffixes interchangeably.

Take sonnet, for example.

"Sonnet is a place where we're seeing that diminutive come in borrowed words, this one from French and from Italian for 'a little sound.' 'Billet' is a little ball, and what people may not realize is that pocket is a diminutive from 'poke,' as in 'a pig in a poke,' plus the 'et,' so it's 'a little bag.'"

Now more about the women's side of things. Starting in the 19th century and early in the 20th century, "ette" came to refer to women as in "suffragette." When that term was coined in 1906 in The Daily Mail, "suffragette" was a derogatory term. 

"It was coined to talk about the women in the social and political union, and to demean them and their efforts to get the vote for women," Curzan says.

"But the women in this union adopted the term and said, 'Fine. We accept it and we will use it as a badge of honor.'"

The suffix "ette" as a feminine suffix hasn't really caught on, Curzan says. 

"For the most part, we've gone to the generic terms, like 'chair' and 'firefighter' and 'mail carrier.'"