Friday, July 13, 2007

On Cute

My dear friend Aspazia from Mad Melancholic Feminista is giving birth today. The welcoming our our newest little feminista is indeed a happy, happy occasion. No matter what else she is, there is no doubt little m will be cute.

That's a word that has always confounded me. There are certainly easy cases that certainly fall in the category. The fingers and toes of babies, for example, especially the finger and toenails are undeniably cute. They look just like ours only so much SMALLER. I want to laugh out loud every time I see baby fingers.

This leads to the first question, which is more of a psychology question than one of linguistic analysis, why are small things cute? Take the most mundane thing, something that would never evoke the slightest bit of emotion upon observation, say, a box of laundry detergent, shrink it down and all of a sudden..."awwww, it's so cute. Look a little tiny box of Tide!"

That usage is a little odd since we are using cute means more than small, but what more is it? We attribute the cuteness to it, but yet the cuteness seems to be more in us, in the way we react to the smaller size.

Then there are the things that are cute, but are not smaller. People, for example, can be cute even when they are not small. Is this a completely different sense of cute or an application of the same meaning to a different category of thing? When I say that grass and a tennis ball are both green, I mean that there is a property, greenness, that they both have in common. But when I say that a pen is good and a person is good, I don't mean that they both have the same property, goodness, as a part of the description of them. Is cute like green or good?

When we do apply the term to people it is a positive attribution. To be cute is to be attractive, albeit in a way different from being handsome, beautiful, stunning, or gorgeous. It connotes a sort of innocence, lightness, and playfulness that can be found appealing. It tends to be connected to ages at the ends of the spectrum. Kids are cute, younger romantic interests may be referred to as cute, and seniors, say, an older couple holding hands, will easily be labelled cute. Why do we have a harder time being cute in middle age? Is it that this is the time when our actions are taken as having ulterior motives? Is it that they are considered the norm and cute denotes something unusual?

We use "cute" in cases of wordplay. A pun that is easily gotten and very tight will often earn "Oh, that's cute." Is this the same sense or a completely different meaning? It seems to be related to clever, something not seen in the other examples which appeal to a sense of simplicity, although it still seems to convey a sense of aesthetic attractiveness and playfulness.

Then there are the uses of "cute" that just flat out baffle me. Often, these come from women looking at clothes. Walking through mall with TheWife, "Oh, those shoes are so cute." Me: (shoulder shrug) I get "would go well with outfit X" (well, at least in theory I get it), I get "are my style and are something I'd like to purchase," but I am at a complete loss as to why expensive footwear that are the same size as the others in the closet are cute. The usage seems similar, perhaps I am simply unschooled and not sophisticated enough to experience the proper emotional response. Or is it a completely different meaning?