When I first encountered the words suffrage, suffragist, and suffragette, I imagined that they had something to do with suffering. After all, black men and black and white women had to suffer before they acquired the right to vote, didn’t they?
Actually, the two words have different origins.
Suffer descends from a Latin word that meant, “to endure,” or “to suffer” in the same sense that we use the word.
Syrian refugees suffer tough conditions at Jordan refugee camp.
Rhinos suffer at the hands of poachers.
Women Suffer Most from [economic] Crisis.
Suffer is used both transitively (with a direct object) and intransitively. For example, one suffers a heart attack, abuse, or neglect, but suffers from heart disease, diabetes, or other medical conditions.
Subtle differences can exist between transitive and intransitive use. Compare:
Indian schools suffer federal neglect.
Indian schools suffer from federal neglect.
The first sentence can be construed to mean only that the schools are being neglected or ignored. The second sentence suggests that the schools are experiencing negative results because of the neglect.
The word suffer in the King James translation of Mark 10:14 seems to have more to do with suffrage than suffer: “Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of God.” Jesus is telling his events’ organizers to allow the children to take part in the proceedings.
The Latin source of the word suffrage meant, “a vote of support.”
The first definition given for suffrage in the OED is “Prayers, especially intercessory prayers, intercessions.” By the 16th century, the word had the meaning of “a vote given in assent to the election of a person” and “in an extended sense, a vote for or against any controverted question or nomination.” Shakespeare used suffrages to mean “votes of approval” in Titus Andronicus (1594):
People of Rome, and people’s Tribunes here, I ask your voices and your suffrages. –I.i.218.
Edward Gibbon (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1776) used suffrage to mean “the collective vote of a body of people.” The framers of Article V of the U.S. Constitution were apparently the first to use the word to mean “the right or privilege of voting as a member of a body, state, etc.”:
…no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.
The word suffragist initially had the non-gendered meaning of “an advocate of the extension of the political franchise.” After about 1885, the word came to be applied most frequently to advocates of voting rights for women. When the word was feminized into suffragette, British women embraced it, but in the United States, the term was viewed as disparaging. American women preferred suffragist or “suffrage worker.” Suffragette also came to have a connotation of radicalism and militancy in the United States.
The suffix -ette comes from the French feminine diminutive suffix. In English it is ordinarily used to form nouns denoting small or brief examples of the thing denoted by the first element:
diskette: small disk
towelette: small towel
kitchenette: small kitchen
H.W. Fowler objected to the coinage suffragette because it tended “to vitiate the popular conception of the termination’s meaning.” He consigned the word to oblivion: “May its influence on word-making die with it!” I doubt he’d much care for our new word dudette.