We begin with the loss of a vowel. In 1713, the word "cute" debuted in the dictionary as an abbreviated version of "acute," meaning sharp or shrewd. In that cheeky way words take on a life of their own, "cute" came to mean "innovative" and "clever," then "pleasing" or "fetching." By the 1830s, American schoolkids had adopted it as slang for "attractive."
The word ricocheted back to Europe in the early 1900s, when the Brits reluctantly agreed to its usage: "As the Americans would say, cute." From there cuteness picked up a few connotations— from animal adorableness in the 20s ("that kitten is cute") to levels of fuck-ability around the 60s ("that guy is cute"). In fact, the metamorphosis of cuteness has as much to do with money, sex and evolution as it does linguistics. But let's start with the science.
Of course there's a German word for it
Austrian biologist and ethologist Konrad Lorenz took some time out from National Socialism around 1940 to develop a formula for cuteness. Kindchenschema (or in English, "baby schema") is the set of physical features that make us go, "Awwwww." According to Lorenz (who later won a Nobel Prize for his zoology work and allegedly recanted on his Nazism), we see maximum cuteness in large heads, round faces, big foreheads, chubby cheeks, plump mouths, small noses, and huge eyes.
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As scientists have since agreed, the sweetness of baby faces "motivates care-taking behaviour in other individuals, with the evolutionary function of enhancing offspring survival." In 1979, 1981, 1994, 2002, and 2012, various scientists have done tests for "cuteness perception" among adult humans, showing various groups pictures of infant faces and measuring their reactions.
The consensus is that we have evolved—especially adult women—to find babies cute so that we care for them.
OK but what about bunnies and kittens and puppies?
It's pretty much the same evolutionary deal. We want to squeal, cuddle, nurture and share YouTube videos of babies from other species because they make us feel the same exaggerated empathy we get for human babies. The closer to human they seem, the cuter we find them.
If you pay attention to exactly what kind of videos we fawn over, you'll notice that animals behaving like babies or toddlers get the strongest reaction. Like these pandas playing on a rocking horse, for example, or this sloth yawning. This tiny monkey is literally waking up from a nap wearing a nappy (It makes your heart hurt, I know. Me too. It's evolution).
Neuroscientist Dr Edgar Coons told the New York Times that watching videos like this can set off a "sublime combination of 'hedonic mechanisms'" in our brains. "There is considerable evidence that these things are what are known as innate releasers to our parenting instincts," he said.
Those instincts start young, too. A 2014 study published in the Frontiers in Psychology shows that children as young as three start having a preference for living things cuter and smaller than them.
It's all very adorable. But here's something else we can learn from Kindchenschema: If you want to market something to grown-ups, adult women and children... Make it cute.
From Kewpie dolls to Minions
The Kewpie Doll is one of the most famous early cuteness fads. Illustrator Rosie O'Neill drew the original Kewpie doll, with its big, imploring eyes and rosy cheeks, for the 1909 Christmas edition of Ladies Home Journal and it was so popular, there were paper versions by 1912 and 3D mass-produced dolls at a German toy manufacturer by 1913. Academic Miriam Formanek-Brunell would later call this "the commercialization of girlhood."
The Kewpie doll even became a mascot for Suffragette movement. Presumably to emphasize the idea that they were fighting for the rights of their daughters, suffragettes even called the Kewpie the first little Suffragette.
Since then, the cuteness industry has only become more lucrative. Disney, Pixar and Illumination Entertainment are particularly good at luring whole families to watch movies and buy merchandise featuring cuteness-optimized characters.
Given the right dimensions, any character, creature or even object can be adorable: Bambi and Thumper, famous rodent lovers Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Cinderella and her fat mouse friends, a hairy giant and a walking eyeball in Monsters Inc, a decrepit robot called Wall-E, Woody and the Toy Story heroes, all 101 dalmatians, rotund British national treasure Winnie the Pooh, a melting snowman called Olaf, and whatever that pudgy white inflatable robot thing is from Big Hero Six. They're all products of Lorenz's Kindchenschema revelation.
Over at Pixar, they've even developed a mathematical formulae for cuteness. As resident picture researcher Tony DeRose explains in this video, they use geometric modeling to make their characters as smooth, round, and visually mollifying as possible.
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Probably the roundest, smoothest, weirdest example of cuteness by design is the Minion. As far as I can tell, Minions are hapless personified yellow Tic-Tacs... But their behaviour, size, shape and vulnerability mimic something childlike, which makes them 'cute'. Why else would they get their own movie? Why would Universal Pictures drop $593 million on marketing last year that included clothes, accessories, fruit labeling, vehicles, life-size models, toys, linen and luggage? How else would the film gross $1.1 billion, making it the eleventh highest grossing film of all time?
Minions play on a modern affliction writer and political theorist Hannah Arendt called "an eroticization of powerlessness, evoking tenderness for 'small things' but also, sometimes, a desire to belittle or diminish them." Judging by the box office figures—and how many times we click on videos of sea lion puppies in restaurant booths—we'll pay good money to feel that way.