Suffixes That Denote Relation or Resemblance

By Mark Nichol

When we refer to something suggestive of William Shakespeare’s works, why do we write Shakespearean (or, seldom, Shakespearian) rather than Shakespearesque? Why is an epic tale labeled Homeric rather than Homerian? What’s the difference between Christian and Christ-like? Is there a method to the madness of these suffixes?

The transformation of surnames into adjectives is fairly random, and writers are strongly advised to consult a dictionary or to research online usage rather than rely on common sense. When such a suffix has not yet been bestowed on a name, audition the four forms (-ean, -esque, -ian, and -ic) and select the most euphonious among them, but only after considering whether it’s wise to use any of the options at all, rather than to simply state that something is reminiscent of the works or beliefs of a particular person.

It takes a significant achievement or, more likely, set of achievements to merit this form, and your attempt to honor someone may be interpreted as irony. The good news, however, is that attaching one of these suffixes to a person’s name is, in a satirical context, an effective form of mockery or parody. (Consider, for example, a reference to a vocalist’s Bieberesque stylings. But beware of clumsy constructions like Kardashianian.)

In sincere usage, reserve -esque for the most deserving recipient names, as with Lincolnesque. The suffixes -ean and -ian — the former form dominates, though the choice often seems arbitrary — is suitable for most other references (Sartrean, Freudian). The -ic option is most suitable for classical (Platonic) or historical (Napoleonic) references.

And note the conversion of names ending in vowel sounds: Themes suggestive of George Bernard Shaw’s philosophy or the tone of his work, for example, are called Shavian, and a worldview akin to that of Henry David Thoreau is Thoreauvian.

The seemingly most sensible alternative — to simply append -like to a name — is rarely employed; the only widespread example that comes to mind is in the distinction between reference to Christian theology or values and to Christ-like behavior or appearance. (The suffix -like is usually attached to a root word without hyphenation, but an exception is made for proper nouns.)

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8 Responses to “Suffixes That Denote Relation or Resemblance”

  • thebluebird11

    Maybe part of the reason that one suffix is chosen over another is that -ic and -esque are 1 syllable, and the others 2 syllables. So although you might not want to “elevate” Kardashian to Kardashianesque (unless you are really sincerely paying homage to a particularly noble quality that one of them has), it still sounds better than the alternative you gave; and using -ic at the end, creating Kardashianic, kind of reminds me of Messianic, and somehow I’m thinking those two don’t belong together.

    Another thing to consider is where a word is accented. In the example you gave, Lincolnesque, I tried “Lincolnian” on for size, and somehow, it didn’t fit. You end up putting the accent on the “co,” which distorts the name and renders it unrecognizable to a listener (but probably would be clear to a reader). Still, as you said, there might be some nuances, so that Lincolnesque might refer to a quality of the man (e.g. his appearance or his personal philosophies), while Lincolnian (cf: Draconian) might refer to things related to his accomplishments as a president/historical figure. I have no research into this to support an opinion one way or another; I’m just kind of musing on a Friday morning as I ease myself into my workday 🙂

  • Curtis

    Did Lincoln speak Linconically?

  • Alice

    Good article write-up. I’m not sure even dictionaries these days would agree with each other on the correct employment of such suffixes.

    By the way, being the nitpicky editor that I am, I couldn’t help but notice a grammatical mistake in one of your sentences:

    “The suffixes -ean and -ian — the former form dominates, though the choice often seems arbitrary — is suitable for most other references (Sartrean, Freudian).” – Since that sentence has a plural noun, “suffices,” it requires a plural verb, “are” rather than “is.”

    Thanks for sharing your info with us.

  • Ray

    How about -ish?

  • venqax

    So comedy like Milton Burle’s is burlesque. Now I get it!

  • Dale A. Wood

    “What’s the difference between Christian and Christ-like?”

    No, I disagree. The suffix “like” is never correctly used with a hyphen.
    Hence, the word is “Christlike”, and similarly: Caesarlike, Tsarlike or Csarlike or Kaiserlike (all of which mean “Caesarlike”), Atillalike, Genghislike, Vikinglike, Georgelike (referring to King George III), Cornwallislike, Godzillalike, Hitlerlike, Stalinlike, Husseinlike.

    Furthermore, attaching a suffix is not always desireable. Look at these examples: { like Achilles, like Ajax, like Priam, like Ulysses, like Homer, like Hannibal, like Scipio Africanus, like Caesar, like Julius Caesar, like Virgil, like Justinian, like Atilla, like Genghis Khan, like Cromwell, like Wellington, like Pershing, like Patton, like Rommel, like MacArthur }. In other words, just use a PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE.

    Comparisons with Augustus Caesar present problems because there have been other famous ones (theologians, etc) named Ausgustinian.
    Hence, “like Augustus Caesar” is much better.

    On the other hand, “Herculean” has been in use for a long time.
    I guess that “Eisenhowerian” is all right, though I would prefer “like Eisenhower”.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Something that was omitted was the fact that the suffixes “ean”, “ian”, or just “n” often form words that are nouns and adjectives, both. I have noticed that many journalists, especially those with Reuters and the Associated Press cannot comprehend or master this, except in rare occasions. Here is a list of some of them:

    Argentinean (seemingly incomprensible to most Europeans), Algerian, Alabamian, Alaskan, Arizonan, Aruban, Brazilian, Bolivian, Bahamian, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Canadian, Chilean, Colombian, Croatian, Cuban, Californian, Carolinian, Coloradan, Dominican (referring to the Dominican Republic), Dakotan, Ecuadorian, Egyptian, Estonian, Floridian, Guatelaman, Georgian, Honduran, Hungarian, Hawaiian, Indonesian, Indianan, Iowan, Jamaican, Jersian (as in New Jersian), Kenyan, Korean, Kansan, Kentuckian, Latvian, Liberian, Lithuanian, Louisianan, Mexican, Moroccan, Manitoban, Mississippian, Missourian, Montanan, Nicaraguan, Norwegian, Nebraskan, Nova Scotian, Ontarian, Ohioan, Oklahoman, Oregonian, Panamanian, Paraguayan, Peruvian, Pennsylvanian, Romanian, Russian, Salvadorean (referring to the country of El Salvador), Scandinavian, Scythian, Serbian, Siberian, Slovenian, Slovakian, Sorbian, Syrian, Tanzanian, Texan, Tennessean, Tasmanian, Uruguayan, Venezuelan, Victorian (as in the state in Australia or the city in Canada), Washingtonian (the state or the city in the United States), Wellingtonian (referring to the capital of New Zealand), Zambian, Zimbabwean. Also, Costa Rican and Puerto Rican.

    In historical geology, there genuinely are the Pennsylvanian Epoch and the Mississippian Epoch, so these words are genuinely used as adectives.

    Also, Argentinean leather or wool, and the Argentinean Air Force.
    Brazilian, Cuban, Dominican, or Jamaican sugar.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Continued:
    Algerian, Alaskan, Canadian, Indonesian, Libyan, Malaysian, Mexican, Norwegian, Oklahoman, Romanian, Russian, Saudi Arabian, Siberian, Texan, Tunisian, or Venezuelan petroleum.

    Californian, Arizonan, Mexican, Texan, or Floridian citrus fruits.

    Brazilian, Colombian, Costa Rican, Guatamalan, Honguran, Mexican, Nicaraguan, Panamanian, or Salvadorean bananas.

    Argentinean, Australian, Brazilian, Bolivian, Canadian, Chilean, Paraguayan, Tasmanian, or Uruguayan wool.
    (I once had a sweater with a tag that said, “Made of 100% Icelandic sheep’s wool”, but that is different because of the adjective “Icelandic”.)

    I don’t get it that so many journalists cannot master such adjectives, and so many editiors do not insist on it. Especially irksome is writers who use “Mexico” instead of “Mexican” and use “Canada” instead of “Canadian”. To Americans, such misuses are very insulting to our neighbors. Also, why use “Bahamas” when “Bahamian” or “Bahaman” are called for?

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