French diminutives – words that have been altered in some way to convey an often cuter, smaller or more friendly element of its original meaning – can often only be picked up to the trained ear once you have been living here for some time.
Add a suffix to make it little
In basic terms, a feminine word will be given the diminutive suffix -ette – for example ‘fillette’ for ‘fille’ (little girl), or ‘maisonette’ for ‘maison’ (meaning little house, and also used by English-speakers).
Your language noter has even been offered, accompanied by a sly wink from the barman, ‘une petite bièrotte’ (with the -otte suffix instead of -ette) to perhaps quench a summer thirst.
It means ‘little beer’ with the ‘petite’ lending a secondary diminutive element – this really did mean ‘a small beer’ when a pint would have been more appreciated.
Masculine words, meanwhile, can have -et, -ot, -on or -ou added.
This is especially popular for people's names, lending an affectionate tone to the likes of Philou or Filou (Philippe) or Jean (Jeannot).
You will often hear family members recounting tales from yesteryear about beloved old aunties (Jeanette for Jeanne, for instance) and uncles using these tender nicknames.
Expression for long ago
There are some expressions that came about from diminutives that evolved over time.
A classic is ‘il y a belle lurette’, which originally meant ‘for a little while now’ but today implies a longer period: ‘ages ago’.
It came from Burgundy in the 19th century and is derived from ‘il y a belle heurette’.
‘Heurette’ meant ‘a little hour’ (from heure) and over time ‘belle heurette’ became ‘belle lurette’.
The word ‘lurette’ does not actually exist as a standalone and is only employed in the context of this charming expression.