Ette: The Suffering Suffix

Smurfette?“Ette,” that French-born diminutive suffix, oft maligned as patronizing and sexist, is most often appended to nouns whose referents have been shrunk, imitated, or as frequently, feminized – for example, respectively, cigar to cigarette, leather to leatherette and ranger to rangerette.

Ette’s critics suggest that the suffix merely modifies “masculine” words and by so doing substantiates the supposition that the language, in its normative form, is male and that feminized words are thus inherently inferior and reinforce the subordination of women. In this light, a word like “woman” is problematic enough and its “a” is replaced in some circles with the neutering “y” to get the “man” out of it (one can only imagine the kind of reception a term like “manette” would
receive).

That said, ette could be a force for feminism if its offensive power was hijacked and redirected as a sort of word reclamation project. Consider how, in recent years, “queer” has been wrested from homophobes, stripped of its pejorative power and now expresses a gay esprit de corps on magazine covers and TV shows.

Hearken back to the great grandmothers of feminism, granddames like Susan B. Anthony who evangelized women’s rights early in the last century and rocked the vote until they got it. They were known as Suffragettes, from “suffrage,” a term that refers to “one’s right to vote.” The “ette,” historically, was pinned on the UK wing of the movement as a pejorative by a snarky Brit newspaper.

“By adding the ‘ette’ diminutive, it tried to ridicule the women as something small, almost like an imitation of the real thing such as one would compare a kitchenette to a real kitchen,” writes Beans, a blogger in Portland, Oregon. “After that, many British suffragists, and a few American ones, adopted the term as a way to differentiate themselves from the staid constitutionalists who sought political equality through negotiation and lobbying.”

Today, the addendum finds sensitive scholars in a quandary: should these ladies be called suffragettes or should one use the gender-neutral “suffragists?” Stop the presses: the suffragettes were not engaged in a gender-neutral protest – they were seeking rights that were denied them specifically because of their gender. There was no “ist” about it – the “ette” is an historical badge of honor and as such is a candidate for reclamation. In this context, perhaps grrrls, womyn and rangerettes can work together.

Originally published in Fine Life’s Feminism Issue.

Now read this.