Spanish speakers frequently use the diminutive suffixes such as -ito not only to indicate size but also to make a word less harsh or to indicate affection. Just as you can imagine someone referring to a 6-foot-tall adult son as "my little boy" or to a full-grown beloved pet as a "doggy," so it is that the Spanish diminutives, although often translated using the English word "little," often indicate more about the speaker's feelings toward the person or object than to its size.
The most common Spanish diminutive suffixes are -ito and -cito along with their feminine equivalents, -ita and -cita. In theory, these suffixes can be added to almost any noun, and they are sometimes used with adjectives and adverbs as well. The rules aren't hard and fast as to which suffix is used; the tendency is that words ending in -a, -o or -te form the diminutive by dropping the final vowel and adding -ito or -ita, while -cito or -ecito is added to other words.
Also commonly used as a diminutive suffix are -illo and -cillo along with their feminine equivalents, -illa and -cilla. Other diminutive suffixes include -ico, -cico, -uelo, -zuelo, -ete, -cete, -ín and -iño along with their feminine equivalents. Many of these suffixes are more popular in some regions than others. For example, the -ico and -cico endings are quite common in Costa Rica, and its residents are nicknamed ticos as a result.
The diminutive suffixes tend to be a spoken phenomenon of Spanish more than a written one, and they are more common in some areas than others. In general, though, they are used far more than English diminutive endings such as the "-y" or "-ie" of words such as "doggy" or "jammies."
You should keep in mind some words in diminutive form may not be understood the same way in all areas, and that their meanings can vary with the context in which they are used. Thus the translations given below should be seen as examples only and not as the only translations possible.
Here, then, are the most common ways the diminutive suffixes are used in Spanish:
- To indicate something is small: casita (little house, cottage), perrito (puppy or little dog), rosita (little rose, rose blossom)
- To indicate something is charming or endearing: mi abuelita (my dear grandmother), un cochecito (a cute little car), papito (daddy), amiguete (pal)
- To provide a nuance of meaning, especially with adjectives and adverbs: ahorita (right now), cerquita (right next to), lueguito (quite soon), gordito (chubby)
- To give a friendly tone to a sentence: Un momentito, por favor. (Just a moment, please.) Quisiera un refresquito. (I'd like just a soft drink.) ¡Despacito! (Easy does it!)
- To talk to very young children: pajarito (birdy), camisita (shirty), tontito (silly), vaquita (cowie)
- To indicate something is unimportant: dolorcito (tiny ache), mentirita (fib), reyezuelo (petty king), me falta un centavito (I'm just a penny short)
- To form a new word (not necessarily a diminutive of the original): mantequilla (butter), panecillo (bread roll), bolsillo (pocket), cajetilla (packet), ventanilla (ticket office), carbonilla (cinder), caballitos (merry-go-round), cabecilla (ringleader), vaquilla (heifer), de mentirijillas (as a joke)
Note: The diminutive -ito ending should not be confused with the -ito ending of some past participles such as frito (fried) and maldito (cursed).