The Suffix “-esque” and the Like

By Mark Nichol

The suffix -esque, one of a class of what are called adjectival suffixes, is adopted from the French version of the Italian suffix -esco, related to the standard English adjectival suffix -ish, and all of them mean like, or “related to” or “characteristic of”; -esque is more specialized, while -ish has additional senses.

The French form is attached to common nouns, as in, for example, the words grotesque and statuesque, as well as to proper nouns such as Kafkaesque, denoting a style similar to an artistic oeuvre, or Chaplinesque, referring to one resembling that of a person or a persona. Note that the suffix is almost invariably closed, without a hyphen; the only exception I can think of is when the last letter of the root word is an e, as in Klee-esque.

But the more important issue is to avoid impulsive creation of new appellations. Well-worn examples have earned their place by repetition based on widespread and lasting influence; a neologism like Snookiesque, for example, should be employed only with tongue in cheek. (And if you don’t recognize the basis of this coinage, such good fortune on your part demonstrates my point.) The simple appendage -like — closed unless the preceding letter is a vowel or the root word is a proper noun — will do.

The Germanic equivalent -ish is used more prolifically and promiscuously; it can also indicate origin or classification (English), an inclination or disposition (bookish, impish), a degree or trace of some quality (blueish, darkish), or an approximation (fiftyish). Sometimes, it’s part of a standing term; for example, selfish, though it is a compound of self and ish, doesn’t carry an immediate association with the root word self. Like -esque, -ish is seldom attached to a root word with a hyphen.

The adjectival suffix -ese also serves both common and proper nouns (academese, Japanese); the former usage invariably refers to a type of jargon and is usually pejorative, with a connotation of obtuseness or pretension, whereas the latter usage is neutral unless placed in a derogatory context.

The form -ian signals disposition (contrarian), occupation (librarian), adherence to a philosophy (libertarian), or language or regional or national origin (Russian); the variation -an is common (vegan, publican, republican, Tuscan). Meanwhile, -ic indicates a characteristic (basic) or a linguistic, cultural, or other sociological category (Gothic).

Two other forms, -hood (adulthood), and -ness (happiness), may be attached to proper nouns as well as common ones (Buddhahood, Englishness), but such exceptions are rare and in the case of capitalized terms ending in -ness are restricted to references to cultural identity. (One exception: Jocular references to someone embodying the essence of another person, as with Hasselfhoffness.)

Many other adjectival suffixes, mostly meaning “state of,” exist, but they are seldom if ever associated with proper nouns. These forms include the following:

-ability (reliability)
-ia (nostalgia)
-ibility (invisibility)
-icity (electricity)
-itas (gravitas)
-itude (gratitude)
-ity (gravity)
-ose (morose)
-osity (porosity)
-ous (generous)
-ship (hardship)
-th (death)

Which suffix to apply depends partly on the construction of the root word and partly on tradition.

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2 Responses to “The Suffix “-esque” and the Like”

  • Leif G.S. Notae

    The magical world of suffixes. I am still a lost man in the woods of English at times, but it is always great to see you posting little tips and hints to help us along. This was a good way to start the day. Thanks for sharing!

  • Tony Hearn

    “The form -ian signals disposition”: I think , in fact, there is no such suffix. The -i- is part of the noun stem, the examples given coming from “contrary” and “library”, or else the -i- is already part of a suffix as in “Russia-n”. “Libertarian”, however, is odd in not being derived directly from “liberty” but having an inserted “-ari” before the “-an” suffix.

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