global English

Terms of endearment

If I’ve had a tough day, there’s nothing that gives me greater pleasure than to curl up on the sofa watching telly, with a nice cuppa, a bar of choccy, maybe a few biccies too, and in case I feel the need for virtual company, my beloved lappy  at my side …

If you’re wondering what on earth is next to me on the sofa, check out this week’s BuzzWord, which reveals all and throws the spotlight on those ‘cute’ abbreviated forms that we sometimes use to refer to familiar things in a quasi-affectionate way. Though most of us take informal words like telly for granted, closer consideration of the concept led me to question why some everyday objects get this kind of ‘cuddly’ treatment, and others don’t. Can you join me in a quest to gather more of these forms? Do you have any special ones in your own particular idiolect? Or if English isn’t your first language, maybe you could tell us if your native language has an equivalent?

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Kerry Maxwell


  • I saw your blog and was immediately intrigued because, as an American, I can’t think of any similar diminutives that are in widespread use. Certainly people’s names are often “cute-ified” in this way, but not everyday objects or activities (like your British watching “footies” on the “telly”) . However, we do like to qualify all sorts of things with “little”, sometimes in ways that seem to make no sense, like, “This is my big little brother,” or even, “That was a BIG little problem” when we’re simultaneously trying to say we had to work hard, but that it was a problem we were up to dealing with. I’ve never seen any studies done on this. I’m really interested in finding out if there are and patterns you discover that include such disparate things as sports, drinks, snacks and electronic goods.

  • Good question, Kerry: why some words attract this suffix but others don’t. The diminutive (hence what you call ‘cuddly’) suffix has been around a long time in British English, but has been given a huge boost through the influence of Australian English (thanks to Australian soaps like Neighbours, gap years in Australia etc). In AusE it’s much more common: 22 out of 171 AusE words in the Macmillan Dictionary end in -y or -ie, including barbie (barbecue), kindy (kindergarten) and sunnies (sunglasses). One of my favourites is sickie (a day you take off work pretending to be sick), partly because of the interesting collocations: you can take a sickie, but you’re more likely to pull, throw, or chuck one.And ‘uni’, which has pretty much replaced ‘university’ in any kind of informal discourse in the UK, is relatively new to British English – once again, we can blame the ‘Aussies’, who got there first.

  • I love teaching these words and created a whole lesson on them a while back, which I now use regularly in “Update your English” sessions. The lesson was actually inspired by a brief exchange in the staffroom one day, when I heard a dialogue between two teachers using such words! The dialogue contained “choccy” and “bickie”, so you can imagine what the topic of conversation was about 🙂

    Other words which are quite common are “hubby”, (husband), moggy (cat), “brolly” (umbrella), and so on.

    Thanks for the new word “lappy”. I’ll have to include this one next time I do my lesson!

    All the best


  • Thanks Michael. Yep, I love the Aussies’ persistent use of this suffix. A particular favourite of mine I learnt from my Tasmanian friend Simon, who on joining the volunteer fire service described himself as a ‘firie’. There’s also ‘wallie’ for ‘wallet’, which wouldn’t trip easily off British tongues due to its completely unrelated homophone.

  • I am an American and find the American term “veggies” repulsive. On the other hand, I used to use “libes” for library as an undergraduate. I doesn’t grate.

  • The England cricket team have been using the -y suffix for many years now. The great 2005 team consisted of, among others, Straussy, Vaughany and Belly, whose monosyllabic surnames acquired a simple -y. Polysyllabic members, such as Hoggard and Harmison used just the first syllable and added -y to became Hoggy and Harmy. The monosyllabic Giles defied this custom and was Gilo rather than Gily, and similarly, the polysyllabic Trescothisck was Tresco rather than Trescy. Kevin Pietersen was known by his initials, KP, thus aurally at least acquiring the coveted -y status, and Andrew Flintoff was known as Freddy. Back in the day, of course, top players had names that already ended in -y, such as Colin Cowdrey, Tom Graveney and Peter May….

  • well having lived in the UK for over nine years I have discovered a full range of short forms and/or informal use of English (i.e. not present in dictionaries). In some instances the graphic aspect triggers my curiosity because my students often ask me to translate informal expressions (though I explicitly refuse to translate swearwords, so common in lower secondary schools). In some cases ‘slang’ words may be used in translation in lieu of, say, a word in neapolitan (I teach in the South of Italy). However, spelling is sometimes an issue in such instances, and similarly, it is not always easy to spell in Neapolitan! Perhaps the best avenue is the theatre..contemporary plays sport more ‘slang’ words, collquialisms, regional accents and inflections!

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