Cute Words

Martha Vickers as Carmen Sternwood in “The Big Sleep”
(Image courtesy of

It’s so cute the way people use it. Like in the “Cute Quotes” on Pinterest:


You’re awkward,
but in a cute way.
Like an elevator ride,
but with puppies.


There’s a contemporary definition of cute posted a decade ago by “anonymous” on

cute A girl who is lovely and dreamy and cuddly and shy and beautiful and awwww *druels.*

That definition has been affirmed by more than 8,000 thumbs up as opposed to fewer than 1,600 thumbs down.


Another cute definition on by “Azizis” gets seven thumbs up, three thumbs down:

so cute basically a nickname for really cute people.

Kyra is so cute!

Historically, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us that cute is a cute little derivation from acute. Technically, it’s “aphetic,” that is, formed by losing the initial unstressed vowel of the more formal word. That happened in the 18th century, with cute meaning about the same as its ancestor acute, namely “clever, keen-witted, sharp, shrewd.” But in the United States in the next century it took on the cute meaning it has today. The OED offers an example from a story in an 1857 issue of Virginia Illustrated:

“What cute little socks!” said the woman.

And that’s the thing about cute. Nowadays it’s majorly feminine.

Women’s fashion is cute. There are cute shoes, jackets, sweaters, earrings, handbags, bracelets, perfumes—and for that matter, cute perfume bottles. Men can wear fashionable shoes and jackets too, but you wouldn’t call them cute.

“Hello Kitty” is acutely cute and pervasively feminine. You can be sure she’s feminine because of the ribbon or flower in her hair. On you can see more than a thousand cute Hello Kitty images.

My favorite example of modern cute comes from that hard-boiled Los Angeles crime story by Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep, published in 1939. When the private eye Philip Marlowe meets luscious Carmen Sternwood at her father’s house, she flirts with him but doesn’t manage to seduce him with her mannerisms or intelligence. “I could see, even on that short acquaintance, that thinking was always going to be a bother to her,” Marlowe notes. At the end of their meeting, Carmen literally falls into his arms. “‘You’re cute,’ she giggled. ‘I’m cute too.’”

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