Keeping me on my tippy toes

An historical exercise.

Awhile back I discussed the derivation of the Italian word fazzolettone (= large handkerchief). While there’s one more level of detail, the relevant part of the derivation is this:

1. fazzolettone = fazzolo + -etto + -one = head shawl + small + big

Now I was admittedly a little glib in using small and big to gloss the suffixes -etto and -one respectively, and Will Leben, who definitely knows what he’s talking about when it comes to word formation, called me on that glibness (my term, not Will’s, who was very polite). Technically, -etto is a diminutive suffix while -one is an augmentative suffix, and in my defense, I did use those terms in the original post.


The late Keith Denning, who is the first author of that book on word formation, was a fellow graduate student and he was the one who first showed me the advantages of writing my own programs to analyze linguistic data that I had collected. He used HyperCard, and I followed suit, becoming a huge fan. In a very real sense, Keith started me down the road to doing computational linguistics and artificial intelligence, which has become a significant part of my career, even though he himself did not do computational linguistics in the same way.


However, the point of Will’s comment is that diminutive and augmentative suffixes have a range of meanings besides “small” and “big” respectively. In particular, Will says:

For example, English -y is often considered a diminutive yet doesn’t mean ‘small’ in “Billy,” “hoodie,” …

In other words English -y/-ie can indicate affection (Billy can be an affectionate form of Bill, not necessarily a small Bill), or not full-fledged (hoodie is not a full-fledged hood, but not necessarily a small hood). So maybe, Will suggests, the combination of -etto and -one isn’t as contradictory as it seems from my glib glosses, if -etto doesn’t really mean “small” and/or -one doesn’t really mean “big” in this context.

I think that’s a fair criticism of the analysis as I presented it, and I think Will’s onto something, though things are a bit complicated. Even Will’s example of Billy isn’t straightforward, but it does give us the key to our puzzle. There are certainly uses of Billy that are both affectionate and small: children. Some of those children drop the –y as they grow up and just go by Bill. However, there are lots of men who go by Billy, some of whom are definitely not affectionate. Others might be more admirable, but Billy is still just a name, with no connotation of either smallness or affection. In a sense, the –y in Billy has partially lost the original diminutive meaning, and Billy is on its way to becoming just another name.

Getting back to Italian, in presenting fazzolettone as containing two suffixes, I may have implicitly suggested that speakers think of fazzolettone in that way, just as they (presumably) did for the many affixes in bisarcipoltroncionacciosissimo. (To be honest, I didn’t think it through.) However, I think that in fact Italian speakers don’t think of fazzolettone as having two suffixes, but just one, namely -one, like this:

2. fazzolettone = fazzoletto + -one = handkerchief + big

If -etto isn’t a suffix, then there is no (seeming) contradiction between -etto meaning “small” or “not full-formed” and -one meaning “big.” But doesn’t -etto just scream out I’M A DIMINUTIVE SUFFIX!!! Not necessarily. There are words in Italian that end in etto but which aren’t derived with a suffix like biglietto = bill, note, ticket (from French billet), and traghetto = ferry (which is not ferry in English either).

So even though fazzoletto was originally derived using the diminutive suffix -etto meaning “small” as in (1), I suspect that’s not how people understand it. In particular, they don’t think of the original root fazzolo = head shawl in connection with fazzoletto. One piece of evidence for this view is that the dictionaries, both Florio’s dictionary from 1611 (originally 1598) and contemporary 21st century dictionaries say that fazzolo is a synonym for fazzoletto. If a fazzoletto were really a little or cute fazzolo, we wouldn’t expect them to be synonyms. In addition, fazzoletto has its own entry, not part of the entry for fazzolo, unlike fazzolettone, which is only listed as part of the entry for fazzoletto. So I think that fazzoletto is a more extreme case of what is going on with Billy: the suffix -etto has lost its original diminutive meaning in this case and fazzoletto is just another word (it’s been lexicalized in linguistics jargon).

I think, too, that -etto is a difficult suffix in general, and even good dictionaries have problems with it. Take for example with word vecchietti which is used constantly in the BarLume mysteries (which is where I came across fazzelettone) to describe the four older men who figure prominently throughout the series. An English version of the first of the BarLume mysteries translates vecchietti as “old-timers” and here is its derivation:

3. vecchietti = vecchio + –etto + -i = old + dim + plural

The Treccani definition of vecchio, says of vecchietto:

riferiti, per lo più in tono vezz., a vecchio che non abbia grande corporatura

= refers, for the most part in an affectionate way [lit. tone], to an old man who may not be of large stature

Back in 1611, Florio defined vecchietto as:

vecchietto: a sillie little old man

Now, in the BarLume mysteries the men are often silly, and the tone is affectionate (with exasperation), but one of the vecchietti (Pilade) is heavy, and only one of them (Gino) is described as slight. Similarly, a colleague once referred to an acquaintance of mine who was of average build, as a vecchietta (the feminine form of vecchietto). I might have translated that as “little old lady” (similar to Florio’s definition), which Lee points out does not imply that the woman is small.

Just to make things even more complicated, Italian has another diminutive suffix -ino, and it can be combined with -etto to give vecchiettino, according to that Treccani definition. And no, I can’t tell you what the difference is between vecchietto, vecchino, and vecchiettino, but neither can the dictionary!

In thinking about a response to Will, it occurred to me that English has a very similar example: handkerchiefHandkerchief was originally a transparent compound of hand and kerchief (in other words, a small kerchief held in the hand), but we don’t think of it that way any more (it’s been lexicalized as its own word). And similar to the Italian dictionaries having fazzolo and fazzoletto as synonyms, the (Collins) dictionary on my Mac says that in literary use, kerchief can be used for handkerchief. It’s a nice coincidence that fazzoletto means “handkerchief.”

Now what about -one? I think that really is a straightforward neutral augmentative in this case, meaning “big.” The Trecanni dictionary entry for fazzoletto says that a fazzolettone is a large fazzoletto used as a neck covering as for Boy Scouts. So essentially, a fazzelettone is a kerchief (nice!). (Italian does have other augmentative suffixes which are not neutral, like -accio, which is pejorative, and which occurs in bisarcipoltroncionacciosissimo along with -one.)

So I think I’ve re-convinced myself that (2) is a reasonable analysis of fazzolettone. What about you?

Thanks, Will, as always, for a stimulating discussion and keeping me on my tipp-y toes.