[Old French -ette, feminine of -et.]
Early examples of the use of -ette to indicate the feminine gender date from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in words imported from French: brunette (French, feminine of brunet, a diminutive of brun, brown); coquette (French, feminine of coquet, wanton, a diminutive of coq, cock). However, it was only in the early twentieth century that similar words began to be created in English, beginning with suffragette (from suffrage, the right to vote in political elections); others are usherette and drum majorette. The move towards gender-neutral terms in recent decades means that new words in -ette with this sense are often deliberately dismissive or flippant: bimbette (from bimbo), ladette (a female lad, in the British colloquial sense of a man who is boisterously macho in his behaviour or actions), punkette, yobette.
A common use is to suggest a diminutive: kitchenette, a small kitchen or part of a room equipped as a kitchen; statuette, a small statue or figurine; diskette, a small removable computer data storage disk; novelette, a frequently derogatory term for a short novel; courgette (French courge, gourd), in British English the immature fruit of a vegetable marrow, a zucchini. However, many words that once had this sense have lost it: cigarette; omelette (literally, a little knife blade, from its flatness; French amelette, from lemele, knife blade). Others never had it: launderette; etiquette (French étiquette, a list of ceremonial observances of a court).
The suffix can also denote an imitation or substitute; many are now only historical, such as beaverette, cashmerette, or poplinette; examples still in use include flannelette, a napped cotton fabric resembling flannel; leatherette, an imitation leather, and winceyette (Scots wincey, an alteration of woolsey in linsey-woolsey, a cheap fabric of wool and cotton), a lightweight napped flannelette.
Silhouette is an eponym, named after Étienne de Silhouette (1709–67), a French author and politician, though nobody knows why.