“Mamacita,” “papacito,” “mi corazoncito.” If a Latino or Latina refers to you with a diminutive, you are loved in chiquito — and God knows we love to love in chiquito

So, why do Latinos use diminutives so much? Is it soft Spanish, suavecito, and despacito, or just because we are affectionate and averse to conflict? 

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the diminutive as “a word, affix, or name usually indicating small size.”  But we Latinos take that meaning and turn it on its head.

For Latinos, the diminutive does not necessarily have to do with size

For both Spaniards and Latinos, including the Spanish-speaking Caribbean nations, using the diminutive doesn’t necessarily mean we are talking about size. Not at all. 

It usually refers to the love the speaker has for the thing, place, or person they are speaking to or about.   

The diminutive transforms the original significance of the word to something sweeter, nicer — like adding that extra spoonful of honey, or “azuquita,” to your “cafecito.”

On the contrary, for us, these transformed words are synonymous with love

For Spaniards, to go diminutive is to add the suffixes ito/ita,ico/ica, illo/illa, and ín/ina to the end of the word. (As in “chiquitín” or “chiquitina.”) 

In Latin America, “cito,” or “cita,” comes from the Nahuatl word “zitla” (derived from “tlazotlaliztli”), which means beloved. 

It originally referred to the love for mother earth, our roots, and the terruño that is our ancestral home.

Let’s review the most common diminutives in Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean 

In Brazil, it would be “inho;” in Mexico, the Andean states, and the Southern Cone, it would be “ito,” “illo.”

And depending on the region in Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Cuba — “ito,” “illo,” and “ico” are all used. 

Today, we should also include Miami, Florida, where you can order a “cafecito,” eat a “galletica Maria,” and visit your “sobrinito” who lives in Hialeah or South Beach.  

The other use of diminutives in Latin America

Latinos use diminutives as an endearment but also to emphasize meaning, demean importance, or even reduce the word to sarcasm.

Diminutives can be used as an excellent way to insult — a velvet punch to the throat, a knifing disguised as a “besito.”

For example, look at the word “Tragaíto” – which means greedy or a glutton — and how Shakira and Karol G use it in their song “TQG.”  Spoiler alert — it’s far from tender and loving; it’s fabulous in its sting.  

There are also ways to use diminutive that refer to time and confuse the hell out of anyone that is not clued into our culture. 

Take the word “ahora,” — which usually means “now.” But, when a Latino uses it, it can mean three different time zones — “ahora,” “ahorita,” y “ahoritica” — especially in Colombia. 

“Ahora” is now; “ahorita” is in a moment, and “ahoritica” is, well, God knows when. So, it’s a lovely way of saying you better sit down and wait. 

“Ya mismito” works the same way. 

Finally, a diminutive can be a way to lessen a blow — to make something terrible, insulting, or painful seem less so. For example, instead of saying you look overweight, Latinos say you are “flaquito, llenito, cachetoncito.” But you know what they mean. 

It’s a soft landing coming from a place of love because we are, above all, affectionate people.