Boy: hey dude!
Girl: I’m not a dude, I’m a girl.
Boy: OK, dudETTE!

The feminine suffix –ette is alive and well in the 21st century. It has several entries on Urban Dictionary (I’ve quoted one of them above), and I keep stumbling across it in unexpected places. Like the online magazine Gadgette,  ‘the smart woman’s guide to tech, style and life’. (‘Have you ever been talked down to about tech?’ the editors ask. ‘Offered the pink version of a laptop, or asked to flash your breasts to try a new smartwatch? We have’.) Or Stemettes, an organization dedicated to ‘showing the next generation that girls do Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths too’.

These are both feminist enterprises (though only Gadgette actually uses the f-word), and both deserve credit for tackling the problem of sexism in science and technology. But what are they doing with these twee, girly, patronizing –ette names?

Back in the day (in my case, the 1980s), I was among the English-speaking feminists who argued for getting rid of feminine endings like –ess, -ette, -ine and –trix,  on the grounds that they were unnecessary and demeaning. Unnecessary, because in most cases there’s no need to make gender distinctions. If a man and a woman both write books, why call one an author and the other an authoress? Demeaning, because the way gender is marked—by taking the masculine/generic form and adding a feminine suffix—suggests that men are the default for the human species while women are a special case or an afterthought, like Eves fashioned from Adam’s rib.

By the 1980s feminine suffixes were already less common than they had been 30 years earlier, and in the last 30 years their decline has continued. They survive in older words which are still frequently used, like actress, princess and heroine (and also in some less frequently used, ‘exotic’ items like dominatrix), but they aren’t generally added to new terms: there’s no such thing as a coderess, for instance, or an online moderatrix. Yet –ette seems to be bucking the trend, appearing in new coinages like stemette and at the end of words it didn’t get added to in the past (another –ette entry on Urban Dictionary lists not only dudette but also friendette). This is galling, because –ette was often perceived by feminists as the most objectionable of the sexist suffixes.

The reasons for that are to do with the historical meanings of –ette. Though it’s grammatically feminine in its original language, French, -ette did not begin its career in English as a feminine gender-marker. In French it’s a diminutive ending, and that’s also how it functions in most of the English words containing it. You add -ette to a noun to make a word that means ‘a small version of (noun)’, as in cigarette, kitchenette, novelette and vanette.

In use, these –ette words sometimes implied that a thing was small in a metaphorical as well as a literal sense—slight, trivial, of lesser value. In some cases the metaphorical meaning became the primary one: poetette, for instance, meant ‘a young or minor poet’. In the late 19th century this ‘lesser value’ sense gave –ette a new use in names for cheap imitations of expensive materials—like beaverette (a type of fake fur), leatherette, satinette and silkette.

Between the 17th and 19th century English imported a few –ette words that denoted women, including coquette (‘flirt’), brunette, and the theatrical term soubrette. But these were foreign words, borrowed directly from French: it wasn’t until the early 20th century that –ette was used to form a new English word referring to a category of women.

The word in question, first seen in print in 1906 in the Daily Mail, was suffragette. It was not invented by the women it was used to name. Rather it was coined by their political opponents as a response to the founding of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. Frustrated by the ineffectiveness of conventional political tactics, the WSPU’s founder Emmeline Pankhurst had announced that the new organization’s motto would be ‘deeds not words’. Its members engaged in direct action: they threw bricks, set fires and sometimes assaulted the police. The label suffragette was meant to distinguish these militant campaigners from the more moderate suffragists, who confined themselves to lobbying and peaceful protest. It was intended to be divisive, and it was also intended to be derogatory.

Choosing an –ette word for this purpose was strategic, because it allowed the existing meanings of –ette to be exploited for negative effect. Because –ette was a diminutive, substituting it for –ist was a way of belittling the WPSU women and suggesting that their activities were of little consequence. Because –ette appeared in the names of artificial materials, the new term subtly underscored a common criticism of the militants—that a woman who engaged in criminal violence was so unnatural, she could not be considered truly female.

So, suffragette was meant as an insult. But the women who were its targets refused to be insulted. Instead they embraced the word with pride (later they even named their magazine The Suffragette), and found ingenious ways to put a positive spin on the problematic –ette ending. As the historian of English Lynda Mugglestone recounts:

The Pankhursts suggested another version by which –gette was to be pronounced ‘get’ — succinctly indicating the suffragettes’ determination to ‘get the vote’ on equal terms with men.

This is a rare example of feminists successfully ‘reclaiming’ a derogatory label. Suffragette was, from the first, a contested term, with supporters of the WSPU using it positively while their opponents continued to use it negatively. But it’s the positive meaning which has ultimately prevailed. After the battle for the vote was finally won, the word began to lose its negative associations. Today, when almost no one disputes that the cause was just, suffragette is not generally regarded as insulting or demeaning. It has eclipsed suffragist as the commonest descriptive label for the women involved in the struggle, and for many people it is a positive term, associated with qualities like courage, passion and perseverance.

But the same cannot be said of the other feminine –ette words which followed it.

These got off to an unpromising start when, almost a decade after failing to establish suffragette as an unequivocally negative label, their opponents made another, more successful attempt at using -ette to belittle feminists. In 1915, when a group of feminist anti-war activists set out to attend the Women’s International Congress for Permanent Peace which was taking place in The Hague, the Daily Express commented:

All Tilbury is laughing at the Peacettes, the misguided Englishwomen who, baggage in hand, are waiting at Tilbury for a boat to take them to Holland, where they are anxious to talk peace with German fraus over a teapot.

In the course of the 20th century, more –ette terms denoting women made their way into English. The earliest, which like peacette were coined during World War I, were munitionette and farmerette. Undergraduette appeared in 1919, (drum) majorette and (cinema) usherette during the 1920s, purserette in 1931, bachelorette in 1943 and proette (‘a female professional golfer’) in 1955. The 1960s gave us nymphette and jockette as well as patrolette (a title apparently used for women employed by certain motoring organizations). The 1970s produced hackette (‘female journalist’), in the 1980s we had bimbette and modette, and ladette emerged in the 1990s.

Most of these words are not overtly insulting, but they could certainly be called patronizing and trivializing. Many of them are labels for women who either took traditionally male roles (undergraduette, farmerette, purserette, proette) or else adopted ‘masculine’ forms of behaviour (bachelorette, ladette). In these contexts the use of any feminine suffix implies that women are deviations from an assumed male norm; the use of the –ette suffix, in particular, suggests their efforts to emulate men are not to be taken seriously.

It’s also noticeable that in most cases (the exceptions being the wartime job titles) these are labels specifically for young women—another metaphorical extension of the diminutive meaning, ‘little’. The femininity they evoke is immature and unthreatening: more cute, bubbly and fun-loving than competent, serious and powerful.

It’s the combination of cutesy girliness with the idea of women aping men that makes –ette words, so far as I’m concerned, a feminist no-go area. To me, there’s something paradoxical about referring to women scientists as ‘stemettes’ (which implies they are trespassing on male turf, whereas the organization’s message is that STEM fields aren’t just for men), or calling a magazine for female tech enthusiasts Gadgette (isn’t that the linguistic equivalent of offering women ‘the pink version of a laptop’? OK, I know, irony, but there’s a fine line between ironizing sexism and just repeating it, producing what the cultural critic Judith Williamson dubbed ‘sexism with an alibi’).

But you might be thinking: how relevant are the judgments of someone who is (a) a linguist and (b) over 50? It’s a legitimate question. My reaction to –ette words is undoubtedly coloured both by my knowledge of their history and by my own history as a feminist. The women who came up with stemette and Gadgette are younger, and it’s possible their understanding of –ette has little to do with the historical meanings which I find it so difficult to get past. Linguistic change is generational: a key reason why the meanings of words change over time is that each new generation of speakers, encountering the words in their own historical context, may draw conclusions about their meaning which do not exactly coincide with the conclusions that were drawn by a previous generation. If you track this process over a long enough time-period, you’ll find plenty of cases where a word’s meaning has shifted from negative to positive, or vice-versa. For instance, sophisticated was once an insult (meaning ‘dishonest, deceitful’), and complacent was once a compliment (meaning ‘pleasant, obliging’).

Could –ette be making the same kind of journey? It’s not inconceivable, but on balance I don’t think so. Present-day English speakers may not make the old connection with cheap imitation materials, because most of those words have fallen out of use. But –ette remains common in its diminutive sense, so there’s still a basis for younger speakers to deduce that female-referring terms of the form X + ette imply ‘little X’ as well as ‘female X’—and potentially to find that insulting, just as feminists of my generation did.

Time will tell. But meanwhile, if you don’t want a brick through your window, don’t ever address me as ‘dudette’.

This post was partly inspired by Lynda Mugglestone’s English Words in Wartime project. The illustration shows some World War I munitionettes in a factory near Luton.