After the grand religious rituals and elaborate feasts of Easter Sunday, Italians celebrate il lunedi dell’Angelo (Angel’s Monday) with a picnic in the countryside beyond the walls of their cities. This national holiday is called Pasquetta, or little Easter.
Like so many words with diminutive suffixes, it implies something more personal and appealing. “Pasqua di rinascita, Pasquetta di festa,” Italians say. “Easter for rebirth; Pasquetta for party.” The simple picnic dishes feature endless variations on eggs, including frittatine (small omelettes) and tortini (small torte or pies).
I’ve come to think of endings such as –ino, -ello, and –etto as the linguistic equivalent of the heaps of sugar Italians add to a thimbleful of espresso to sweeten its taste. A bambina (baby girl) inevitably elicits cries of "Carina!" "Bellina!" "Tesorina!" "Bambolina!" (Cute! Pretty! Little darling! Baby doll!) Almost everything to do with piccolini (little ones) merits a diminutive, right down to sederino or culetto for a sweet little baby bottom.
Many diminutives simply signify size or shape. In contrast to an albero (tree), an alberino is a shrub; an alberello, a sapling; and an alberetto, a dwarf tree. Trousers are calzoni; calzoncini, shorts. The Italian physicist Enrico Fermi coined the term neutrino (little neutral one) for a particle even smaller than a neutron. In music, andantino means not as slow as andante.
Thanks to diminutives, a sign outside a rustic osteria (a tavern serving simple food) can summarize its entire menu in three variations:
Pranzo (lunch): 15 euro
Pranzetto (lighter lunch): 10 euro
Pranzettino (bite to eat): 5 euro.
Diminutives also can add a clever twist to common words. An especially endearing form of amore is amorino. A horse has a coda (tail), but Italian men and women may sport a codino (pony tail). Vento (wind) melts into venticello (a nice little wind), but gentler still is a brezzolina (soft little breeze). If your child develops a febbre (fever), you may be relieved to find out that it's only a febbricciatola (low grade fever).
But not every little thing is a good one. My Italian friends warn me to beware of people asking for a little anything, whether it’s a tiny little moment of your time (attimino), a peck of a kiss (bacino), or a bit of help (aiutino). Usually they’re after much more.
Words and Expressions
Figlioli piccini dolore di testa, fanciulli grandini dolore di cuore -- young children, headache; older kids, heartache
stellina di mogliettina -- little star of a little wife (literally), a wonderful wife
capellini (from capelli for hair) -- fine or thin hair (or spaghetti)
casetta (from casa for house) -- little house, cottage
negozietto (from negozio for shop) -- small shop
discorsetto (from discorso for conversation or talk) -- little talk
Dianne Hales is the author of Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered and La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.
Click below to listen to Puccini's famous aria to a gelida manina (cold little hand):