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In the children song below, I'm bit confused on the two lines highlighted:

Dance to your daddy
My little baby
Dance to your daddy
My little lamb

You will have a fishy
In your little dishy
You will have a fishy
when the boat comes in.

I get the meaning, but I wonder: how come the adjectives fishy and dishy are being used as nouns here?

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It's true that there's a suffix spelled -y which forms adjectives. This suffix looks the same, but it's actually different.

This is a hypocoristic or diminutive suffix -y which can be used on nouns (including proper nouns). It does not change word class to adjective. In this case, fishy is a noun, and so is dishy.

So what's this suffix do, then? Basically, it makes stuff sound cuter.

This suffix turns dog into doggy and pig into piggy. Sometimes the sound of the base word changes slightly, so cat becomes kitty. For example, if you decided to have a conversation with a piglet, you might say something like this:

Who's a cute wittle piggy!? You are! That's right, yes you are!

(Note the change from little to wittle. This, too, makes stuff sound cuter.)

This suffix is also spelled -ie and is often used to form pet names. (That's what hypocoristic means.) And if you attach it to a multi-syllable word, you usually get rid of every syllable except the first. For example, you might call someone named Christine Chrissie, first shortening the name to Chris and then adding the suffix.

None of this is acceptable in formal Standard English, but it's acceptable informally.

  • 1
    It also makes the lines scan better (three trochees). – Andrew Leach Sep 21 '13 at 21:40
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    +1. Re: "None of this is acceptable in formal Standard English": the process is not productive in formal Standard English, but some of the words so formed do eventually make their way into the formal language. Two particularly old examples are baby and puppy; a more recent example is doggy or doggie in compounds such as doggy paddle and doggie bag. – ruakh Sep 22 '13 at 6:04
  • Great answer! And I learned a new word, which happens a lot when I read your answers :) One tiny thing: I don't think it's the base word changing from cat to kitty. A baby cat is a kitten, and I'm pretty sure kitty comes from kitten. It just so happens that kitty is used to refer to cats of all ages, whereas we have both dog -> doggy and pup -> puppy for dogs :) – WendiKidd Sep 23 '13 at 18:04
  • @WendiKidd Diachronically, this is true, but synchronically, you get kitty when you apply -y to cat. Try it. Dog, doggy. Cat, kitty. I skipped over the diachronic aspect because I don't think etymology is on-topic on ELL unless it helps you understand something. – snailcar Sep 23 '13 at 18:55
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    I understand what you are saying, and I agree with the gist of it. But – just as a personal opinion – once you change little to wittle, it's not cuter any more, it's more annoying. (Can you guess that Elmo is my least favorite muppet?) +1 for a great answer, though. – J.R. Sep 24 '13 at 22:35

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