Who are you calling cute?

As part of my paediatric community health placement, I assisted the dietitian with a health promotion visit to a local primary school. The message was fairly simple: we eat different foods for different reasons, there are some foods we should eat less of than others, and eating healthily and being healthy are not quite the same thing.

During the activities, one boy (aged 6 or 7) told me that he used to like sushi, but does not anymore. I asked him why not. His answer: “because of the tsunami”. As if it were that obvious. I paused for a moment (It’s a fault of mine that I think too carefully about how I speak with children), and then asked: “what does sushi have to do with the tsunami?”. What followed was a rather disorganised narrative (I think, my norms were not at hand, and I wasn’t counting t-units), describing how the tsunami had damaged the seaweed, which had rendered it poisonous, which meant sushi was now poisonous. Like many stories told by six-year-olds, it was presented in a very matter-of-fact manner, with no shades of possibility. I said “well that makes sense”, but I was honestly bamboozled.

I related the story to friends, who exclaimed “how cute!”. I was inclined to agree, but remembered something that had come up on twitter about that word and applying it to vulnerable people like children and old people. More on that below.

Interlude: what does ‘cute’ mean?

I went to the bible of English lexicography, the Oxford English Dictionary, which I remembered fondly from a classes in the History and Structure of English. We can see that ‘cute’ originally (at least at the beginning of the 18th century) was a shortening of ‘acute’, meaning ‘clever or sharp witted’. The contemporary usage arose through American schoolboy slang, appearing in the early 19th century with the meaning ‘quaintly interesting’, being later extended to encompass its contemporary meaning of ‘attractive, pretty or charming’. The last example is from an issue of American Speech in 1966.



The entry in the OED is very old, and has not been updated since the 2nd edition came out in 1989. I would say that the word now has attracted a set of new connotations (although I would need to do more to collect sufficient evidence to prove this):

Cute now means attractive with the following:

  • simple
  • non-threatening
  • childish
  • invoking a care response in the viewer (something like: “awwww how cute!”)
    • Presumably because the ‘cute’ thing cannot care for itself.

Here’s a website dedicated to cute things – note that the pictures are all pets. Here’s a Vanity Fair article analysing the role of the internet in introducing ‘cute’ to the mainstream.

Back to the story

During my acute hospital placement, my fellow students sometimes described older patients (‘he’s very cute’). It’s not a rare way to describe older people – see this tumblr blog entitled ‘I love cute old people’. I explained that I found that language a bit cringe-inducing. As we saw above, we apply ‘cute’ to things that cannot care from themselves, things that lack inherent dignity (does a cat or a baby have the same level of dignity as an 80-year-old?). The simplest way to know how to behave in a health care setting is to imagine, is this the care I would be happy having relatives of mine receive?

I would not be happy for a grandparent to enter a hospital, and have people referring to them as ‘the cute old guy in bed 26’.


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