Exculpatory diminutive

One of the most common uses of the diminutive in Portuguese as it is spoken in these parts is to excuse or mollify something that might be seen as illegitimate or a nuisance, but which the speaker imbues with positive feeling. The classic example is the ‘jeitinho’, bending the rules, which is the evil twin of sclerotic Brazilian bureaucracy: each exists to thwart the other. That deserves its own post.

Some examples, with glosses:

musiquinha My music may annoy you, but I like it

cervejinha One too many

dinheirinho Come on, it’s not that expensive

comprinhas Shopping spree

cachorrinho It may crap on the pavement, but it’s so sweet

espera só um pouquinho Wait here for the present (with apologies to Laurie Lee)

amiguinhos “just friends”

precinho Discount

saidinha Just popping out for a minute

As the last example shows, there are ways of doing this sort of thing in English, as no doubt in all languages (pace Whorf); but my guess is this style is particularly common in just Spanish, Portuguese and Italian (maybe Roumanian) — southern Romance, let’s say.

  1. This is very true. I am often surprised, however, as to how exactly the same strategy can be used in English and turns out to be the best translation. To add just two more examples “bebinho” (a little drunk; i.e. plastered); and “ele gosta das festinhas” (he likes a bit of a party; i.e. he likes riotous parties.) If you google image these two terms you get a very clear idea of the true meaning. “Cervejinha” could also be translated as “a drink or two” or “a swift half” depending on the context. Ele gosta de uma cervejinha=he likes a drink or two, ie. he’s an alcoholic. Vamos tomar uma cervejinha. Let’s have a swift half. ie. Let’s get plastered. “Beijinhos” more often than not means “big sloppy kisses,” whilst “beijos” can be as cold as “regards”. Bonitinho means plain or downright ugly. Saudades. Paul.

    • Traditional grammar could no doubt offer a fine-grained taxonomy of the uses of the diminutive (starting with size and affection, moving swiftly on to contempt (Graeculus), and perhaps ending up somewhere near litotes). The above post was a contribution to such an exercise (meaning to point out that the use of the diminutive is often quite far from what is first taught). Perhaps a better approach would be a Gricean one: to put it another way, decoding via pragmatics. There is generally an unstated assumption lurking behind the more interesting or amusing examples. In several of these cases (particularly regarding consumption of alcohol and money) the two elephants in the room may be a tendency in the culture to excess, and mixed (Catholic) feelings about that. People like to pat their elephants on the trunk, and that’s the basis of a lot of humour. In the case of the example of ‘Graeculus’, uppity Greek, Rome conquered the Greeks but had a cultural chip on its shoulder; for these unstated reasons, it was necessary to keep putting the clever little chaps down while drinking deep of their fountain. Virgil may have meant to outdo Homer but he took him as his model. Abração manu!

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