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I recently read a joke about the use of Latin -tor and -trix nouns in modern English. The punchline was that "trix is for kids".

This got me wondering: Is there a way to make diminutives from agent nouns?

For example, knowing that the diminutive form of rex is regulus, the diminutive form of saltatrix might conceivably be saltatrigula, although I admit it sounds a bit clunky, and it could be completely wrong.

I have no idea what the masculine equivalent would be, however. Saltatorulus sounds much more wrong than saltatrigula.

Are there any existing diminutives of agent (-tor/-trix) nouns?

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There are agent nouns for all genders. For example, saltare gives rise to saltator, saltatrix, and saltatrum. For more details, see this question.

The stem is revealed by the genitive form. For my three examples they are saltator- (third conjugation), saltatric- (third), and saltatr- (second). (The stem of rex is reg-, so it has a g instead of a c.) If you want to use the usual -ulus/-ula/-ulum for diminutives, it would have to be attached to these stems. So the natural guesses would be saltatorulus, saltatricula, and saltatrulum.

Then it remains to check whether such diminutives are actually in use. The word saltatricula is post-classical but attested. The given translation is, unsurprisingly, "little dancing girl". For another similar example, cicatricula is a diminutive of cicatrix, and also nutricula comes from nutrix. These make a decent case for diminutives of words ending in -trix, including feminine agents.

I found no examples of -torulus (apart from the word torulus, a small torus). A different kind of diminutive suffix might work, and -torculus sounds more natural to me. Indeed, it does exist: amatorculus. I found no other examples though, so perhaps there is another way or this just is so rare. If you need a diminutive of a masculine agent, I suggest -torculus.

I found no examples of -trulum or -trellum. They both sound reasonable to me so I would go with either of them, but I have not managed to find any examples of such words in a dictionary.

So, the three little dancers should probably be saltatorculus, saltatricula, and saltatrulum or saltatrellum. Such diminutives are rarely pre-existing words, but diminutives and agents are productive in Latin and especially in proper context such words are easily understandable.

  • If there are/were any neuter diminutives old enough to take part in the relevant sound changes, it would probably have ended up as -tellum. No idea if there are any of those either, though. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 17 at 0:01
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    Thanks for a great answer! And for pointing out the neuter form, which had slipped my mind entirely. – Dhi Jan 17 at 17:15
  • Wells, there's always the good old "saltatrix parva" :P – Ergative Man Jan 22 at 19:15
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The example that I'm familiar with is meretricula, found in, e.g., Plautus, Rudens 62-63:

ipse hinc ilico
conscendit navem, avehit meretriculas.

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Are there any existing diminutives of agent (-tor/-trix) nouns?

Yes, though the rarest.

Examples for -trix have been already mentioned by @Joonas and @cnread: nutricula, meretricula...

I'd like to add an example for an adjective derived from a -tor word: punctatoriola, as the diminutive of punctatorius from punctator: the reference is Festi Fragm. e Cod. Farn.:

"punctatoriolas levis pugnas appellat Cato in ea, quam dixit de re Histriae militari".


If you'd like to know some good sources addressing the topic, you might be interested in:

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    That's not quite the same though, is it? The agent noun itself isn't being made into a diminutive. Instead the derived adjective punctatorius is. Diminutives from adjectives aren't so uncommon (whereas, apparently, diminutives of masculine agent nouns are.) – cnread Jan 17 at 0:21
  • @cnread I agree with you; however, I've reported the hypothesis of Hanssen, who says that Cato may have used there the same word *punctator i.stack.imgur.com/XhNKf.png – Shootforthemoon Jan 17 at 7:34
  • 2 questions: 1. Why is it nutricola (sounds like a healthy soda, btw) but metetricula? 2. What does it mean when you use the diminutive form of an adjective? Is it like prexifing an adjective in English with "a little"? – Dhi Jan 17 at 17:19
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    @Dhi Because obviously I've miswritten XD Thanks, it's nutricula, otherwise yeah it would be a healthy soda (i.stack.imgur.com/pX0SQ.png), or a jellyfish. There are in Latin (also in Italian) diminutives of adjectives - not for all adjectives though. In English they are usually rendered as you write, by prefixing (a little, a bit, quite), or by using word such teeny, weeny... – Shootforthemoon Jan 17 at 17:48
  • barcarole (a kind of song), if from barca (a kind of ship, from Egy bar) would exhibit o anyway. Wonder if -ca is also diminutive, cp Ger -chen, -ken, Pol -ska (not to be confused with Slavic fem. suf. -ka?). – vectory Jan 19 at 9:16
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Indeed, "it could be completely wrong". Well, not completely, if there is precedent that's hard to argue with, but treating -ulla rubs me the wrong way, not the least because I've read mention--nothing specific yet--that -el in Germanic might be a dual suffix, and I think this is reflected in -sel, English -else, which are rather deemed instrumental; otherwise, cp eg. En. ladle (viz "-el ("agent suffix")"), cp Ger Kelle "ladle". This makes sense insofar duals were also used for corresponding pairs, I think modulus might be an example. Shoe is my primary example of things that come in contrasting pairs (left and right), thus cp caligula.

Quite trivially, if *-ter is handled as evident Indo-Germanic instrumental suffix with various variants like *-trom, *-tlom, *-dhlom, next to *-mn, another agentive noun suffix, then full grade **-tel-, perhaps from *telH- is imaginable.

Yet, nicknames do not have to follow formal rules, if breaking them in creative ways is half the fun. Suppose German [dumme] Trulla were akin to dominatrix. It would be well acceptable. No, I'm not trolling, the etymologies of certain words like trash, Ger Trödel or threshold (possibly reflecting *-thl, *dhlom) are simply speculative, so far, and DWDS or wiktionary don't etymologize Trulla "[ugly] hag".

Addressing your comment

What does it mean when you use the diminutive form of an adjective?

In general, if the dimuntive derived from an agent suffix or similar the adjective would mark a noun as the thing that beares the agency. So clinic for example is derived from a Greek adjective that would just translate as "bed" whenever it's used as an attributive noun, as in bed ridden (though I can't help imagine it's reflected in clean "sanitary"). Cp bird song, little birdie--a birdy song. This seems especially notable if -ly cannot be explained solely from a sense "body, corpse", thus "bodied".

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