Unit 14: Future and conditional perfect tenses, translation considerations (part 4)

14.4 Augmentatives and Diminutives

Augmentative and diminutive endings are frequently attached especially to nouns, as well as to other parts of speech, and make them undergo a sometimes subtle, sometimes major shift in meaning. They occur with extremely high frequency, especially in the spoken language, and the exact meaning is often very hard to detect by non-native speakers, as their usage may be extremely subjective.

There are exceptions to many things that can be written about diminutives and augmentatives and the following remarks should be taken only as general guidelines.
The most common diminutive endings are -ito (-eto), –illo (-cillo, –ecillo), –ico, –ín, –chón, –uelo, and their variants, especially of –ito (-cito, –ecito), depending on the ending of the noun. The preferred diminutive endings and frequency of usage vary substantially among the different Spanish-speaking countries and areas of the world. While the Spanish of Spain tends to limit these suffixes to nouns, in Latin America they also appear commonly with adjectives and other parts of speech, e.g., ahora = “now,” ahorita = “right now.” (In Spain, “right now” is expressed with the intensifier mismo: ahora mismo.)

While the exact sense of diminutives and augmentatives is often very hard to translate exactly, what is important to know is the following: diminutives usually connote smallness, affection, a warm or emotional tone, emphasis or a combination thereof. (These often correspond to the French ending –ette, which has been incorporated into some English words to indicate smallness.) See the examples below and their translations:

Juan John
Juanito Jonny
niña (female) child, girl
niñita nice and/or little girl
joven young woman
jovencita young girl
poco little
poquito very little
novela novel
novelita novelette, novella

Other diminutives and augmentatives have become standardized in the language. You do not need to memorize the lists below. Just read them and notice the patterns. While an idea of smallness or largeness may be present, there is no emotional or subjective connotation present:

caja box
cajón drawer
rata rat
ratón mouse
bolso purse, handbag
bolsillo pocket
camión truck
camioneta pick-up truck, station wagon
cigarro cigar
cigarrillo cigarette
camisa shirt
camiseta T-shirt
pan (loaf of) bread
panecillo roll
calle street
callejuela alley
zapatos shoes
zapatillas slippers
palabra word
palabrota obscenity, swear word
casa house
caserón mansion, large or broken-down house

In the first two examples and the last one, the word in the augmentative may undergo a change in gender, for example: caja (fem.) and cajón (masc.).

The most common augmentative endings are –ón, –ote, –azo and –udo. The exact shade of meaning conveyed by augmentatives may be even more difficult to detect. What is important to know is that in general augmentatives may carry connotations of largeness, intensity, negativity or a combination thereof, often with some sort of a pejorative idea. Study these examples and their translations:

hombre man
hombrón large man
mujer woman
mujerona large woman
mujerzuela uncouth woman
pelo hair
pelón (adj.) balding, hairless
peludo (adj.) very hairy, big and hairy

Occasionally, the –azo suffix may imply admiration:

bigote mustache
bigotazo great big (impressive) mustache

More often the –azo suffix denotes a thrust or a blow:

puño fist
puñetazo punch
flecha arrow
flechazo arrow wound

Some augmentative endings are almost always blatantly pejorative. These include: –aco, –acho, –ajo, –astro, –uco and –ucho.

Mi hermano se cree poeta, pero en realidad es un poetastro. My brother thinks he’s a poet but in reality he’s a third-rate poet..

One also finds occasional “diminutive” verbs, which carry an –it, –iz or –e suffix before the infinitive ending:

marchar to go away
marchitarse to wither, to wilt
dormir to sleep
dormitar to snooze
lagrimar to cry, to weep
lagrimear to tear up, to begin to cry
llover to rain
lloviznar to drizzle

Proceed with caution when you come across an augmentative or diminutive. If the meaning does not seem logical, indeed it may not be. Consulting a good dictionary and/or thoroughly studying the context will often clarify any doubts.


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