All about -ette

Diminutive, feminine (in some sense), both. In the One Big Happy strip of 3/4, in my comics feed on 3/36:


In modern English — that’s important — the suffix -ette has two relatively productive — that’s also important — functions: as a literal diminutive, referring to a small version of the referent of the base to which –ette is attached (“diminutive” suffixes can have a variety of other functions, notably as expressing affection towards this referent); and as a literal feminine, referring to a female version of the referent of the base to which –ette is attached (“feminine” suffixes can have a variety of other functions, notably as markers of grammatical gender (ggender), as opposed to natural, or sex, gender (ngender); English doesn’t have ggender).

The big generalization about modern English is that –ette attached to bases with inanimate reference (like disk) tends to have the literally diminutive function (diskette), while attached to bases with human (or, more generally, higher-animate) reference (like usher), –ette tends to have the literally feminine function (usherette). Novel formations follow the generalization: a spoonette would be a small spoon, not a spoon in female shape, or a spoon intended for use by girls and women; while a guardette would be a female guard (perhaps viewed dismissively or derogatorily), not a miniature guard.

Ruthie’s brother Joe apparently fails to appreciate the big –ette generalization, and takes a bachelorette to be a miniature bachelor, rather than the female counterpart of a bachelor (in Joe’s terms, a grown-up girl — a woman — who isn’t married yet).

Note: the cartoon is so funny — the image of a bachelorette as “a teeny-weeny bachelor” is so risible — because we, the readers, appreciate the generalization (tacitly, of course). And then because most readers will at least be aware of the long-running reality tv show The Bachelorette. From Wikipedia:

(#2) The Bachelorette cast for season 15

The Bachelorette is an American reality television dating game show that debuted on ABC on January 8, 2003. The show is a spin-off of The Bachelor and the staple part of The Bachelor franchise. The first season featured Trista Rehn, the runner-up from the first season of The Bachelor, offering the opportunity for Rehn to choose a husband among 25 bachelors.

… In March 2021, the show announced it would have its seventeenth and eighteenth series later that year.

Quinion on -ette. But back to language. From Michael Quinion’s affixes site (with some material boldfaced, for some discussion on ggender and ngender. Two further warning notes. One, the discussion tends to move back and forth between etymology and present-day English. Two, in this entry Quinion mentioned a great many –ette examples, no matter how idiosyncratic — I have, in fact, edited out a number of them — so that it’s hard to see the tendencies.

-ette: Forming nouns. (Old French ‑ette, feminine of ‑et.)

Early examples of the use of ‑ette to indicate the feminine gender date from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in words imported from French: brunette (French, feminine of brunet, a diminutive of brun, brown); coquette (French, feminine of coquet, wanton, a diminutive of coq, cock). However, it was only in the early twentieth century that similar words began to be created in English, beginning with suffragette (from suffrage, the right to vote in political elections); others are usherette and drum majorette. The move towards gender-neutral terms in recent decades means that new words in ‑ette with this sense are often deliberately dismissive or flippant: bimbette (from bimbo), ladette (a female lad, in the British colloquial sense of a man who is boisterously macho in his behaviour or actions), punkette, yobette. [NOAD on the noun ladette: British informal a young woman who behaves in a boisterously assertive or crude manner and engages in heavy drinking.]

A common use is to suggest a diminutive: kitchenette, a small kitchen or part of a room equipped as a kitchen; statuette, a small statue or figurine; diskette, a small removable computer data storage disk; novelette, a frequently derogatory term for a short novel; courgette (French courge, gourd), in British English the immature fruit of a vegetable marrow, a zucchini. However, many words that once had this sense have lost it: cigarette; omelette (literally, a little knife blade, from its flatness; French amelette, from lemele, knife blade). Others never had it: launderette; etiquette (French étiquette, a list of ceremonial observances of a court).

The suffix can also denote an imitation or substitute; many are now only historical, such as beaverette, cashmerette, or poplinette; examples still in use include flannelette, a napped cotton fabric resembling flannel; leatherette, an imitation leather… [This would appear to represent another of the functions of the diminutive, to refer to imitations.]

ggender and ngender. French has ggender, which involves a categorization of essentially all nouns into (in French) two categories, traditionally called feminine and masculine, so-called because of a fairly close relationship, for human-reference nouns, between this categorization and the categorization of human beings into two categories on the basis of sex (female and male). The ggender categorization is only loosely associated  with the sex categorization (notoriously, the noun personne ‘person’ is of the feminine ggender, regardless of the sex of the referent), so it would he helpful to have names that sound less sex-based; I suggest Fe and Ma, which are more obviously arbitrary but can still be connected to the traditional category names.

Importantly, the ggender categorization is indeed grammatical, a matter of morphosyntax; in particular, in French, articles and modifying adjectives agree with their head noun with respect to this categorization; some singular-number (Sg) examples in the two ggenders, with the head nouns underlined, both in French and in the English translations:

Fe Sg: une / la  fille / fin  heureuse ‘a / the  happy  girl / ending

Ma Sg: un / le  garçon / conte  heureux ‘a / the  happy  boy / tale

Now, in the Quinion entry, “Old French ‑ette, feminine of ‑et” is a reference to the Fe ggender counterpart to the Ma diminutive derivational suffix –et. In French. The immediately following “Early examples of the use of ‑ette to indicate the feminine gender date from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in words imported from French” is about English, which has no ggender, so this is about ngender; it’s a reference to -ette in one of its functions, as a marker of female sex — an understanding that recurs in spades in the final bold-faced excerpt, on “the move towards gender-neutral terms“.

etymology and synchrony. Quinion notes that brunette and coquette are borrowings from the French, where their analysis involves both a derivational affix (conveying a diminutive) and an inflectional affix (marking Fe ggender). But those are facts of (older) French, and not relevant to the analysis of synchronic English.

It turns out that four more of Quinion’s examples were also borrowings from French, according to the OED: statuette, courgette, omelette, etiquette. The first of these could be productively innovated in modern English (as a diminutive of a noun with inanimate reference), but that’s not what happened).

covering the territory. Quinion’s attention to covering such a wide range of examples (in all of their idiosyncrasy), admirable though it is in some ways, has the unfortunate consequence of obscuring significant partial regularities and tendencies.

OED3 on the history of gender. First for ggender, in the 14th century, then extended in usage over the centuries to wider and wider uses. The full story, from OED3 June 2011; latest version published online March 2021:

1. Grammar.

a. In some (esp. Indo-European) languages, as Latin, French, German, English, etc.: each of the classes (typically masculine, feminine, neuter, common) of nouns and pronouns distinguished by the different inflections which they have and which they require in words syntactically associated with them; similarly applied to adjectives (and in some languages) verbs, to denote the appropriate form for accompanying a noun of such a class….
(Sometimes called grammatical gender, to distinguish this sense from natural gender … In most European languages, grammatical gender is now only very loosely associated with natural distinctions of sex.

English is regarded as possessing natural gender in that certain pronouns expressing natural contrasts in gender are selected to refer to nouns according to the meaning of the nouns, the contrasts being either between masculine (e.g. he, his, etc.) and feminine (e.g. she, her, etc.) or between personal (e.g. the abovementioned masculine and feminine pronouns and who, whoever, etc.) and non-personal (e.g. it, its, which, etc.). In recent times nouns incorporating [natural] gender suffixes (esp. those indicating females and formed on generic nouns, such as authoress, poetess, etc.) have become much restricted in use.) [1st cite in the grammatical-gender sense from c1390]

b. In extended use. Esp. in non-European languages: any of several other analogous categories into which nouns may be divided (regardless of any connection with sex). [1st cite 1819]


a. A class of things or beings distinguished by having certain characteristics in common; (as a mass noun) these regarded collectively; kind, sort. Obsolete.
(In earliest use: genus, as opposed to species…) [1st cite a1398]

b. That which has been engendered …; product, offspring. Obsolete. rare. [1st cite a1425 I am..of þe gendre of israhel, of þe tribe of beniamyn, …]


a. gen. Males or females viewed as a group; = sex n.-1 Also: the property or fact of belonging to one of these groups.
(Originally extended from the grammatical use at sense 1 (sometimes humorously), as also in Anglo-Norman and Old French. In the 20th cent., as sex came increasingly to mean sexual intercourse) …, gender began to replace it (in early use euphemistically) as the usual word for the biological grouping of males and females. It is now often merged with or coloured by sense 3b.) [1st cite 1474]

b. Psychology and Sociology (originally U.S.). The state of being male or female as expressed by social or cultural distinctions and differences, rather than biological ones; the collective attributes or traits associated with a particular sex, or determined as a result of one’s sex. Also: a (male or female) group characterized in this way. [1st cites 1945 Amer. Jrnl. Psychol. 58 228 In the grade-school years, too, gender (which is the socialized obverse of sex) is a fixed line of demarkation, the qualifying terms being ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’. 1950 Amer. Jrl. Psych. 63 312 It [sc. Margaret Mead’s Male and Female] informs the reader upon ‘gender’ as well as upon ‘sex’, upon masculine and feminine rôles as well as upon male and female and their reproductive functions.]

c.  Electronics. The property of a connector being male or female… [1st cite 1984]

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