The Suffix -esque

By Maeve Maddox

The suffix -esque is frequently used by pop-culture writers who enjoy making adjectives from celebrity names:

Paris Hilton dons Madonna-esque fingerless gloves as she takes to the decks in Washington 

Never Say Never (sung in Beiber-esque voice, of course)

Keith Ford, Looking Very Clooney-esque

The suffix -esque means, “resembling or suggesting the style of.” This is a regular French suffix that corresponds to the English suffix -ish, as in reddish. Four words with this suffix entered English ready-made from French.

arabesque: Middle French arabesque was a noun meaning “the Arabic language.” As an adjective, arabesque meant “Arabian in character.” Because of the flowing form of Arabic writing, the word came to be used to describe any decorative pattern consisting of flowing, interlacing lines. Example: “The arabesque pattern occupies the inner and top margin of the page.”

burlesque: Another French borrowing, burlesque derives from the Italian word burlesco, “something that mocks.” As a noun, a burlesque is a genre of writing that mocks a more serious genre. For example, Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” is a burlesque of Homer’s Iliad.

grotesque: This French spelling was adopted into English about 1640. Its most common use is an adjective meaning, is “ridiculously ugly or distorted.” Example: De Palma has, like Kubrick, Lynch and Fincher, sought to master the intersection of mesmerizing beauty and grotesque horror.” 

picaresque: This noun/adjective combination with its French spelling derives from Spanish picaro, “vagrant, rogue, scoundrel.” The English word refers to a literary genre called the “picaresque novel.” This type of novel has very little plot as it follows the adventures of a (usually) loveable scoundrel or vagrant. Don Quixote, Tom Jones, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are picaresque novels.

In addition to these four words that entered English as foreign borrowings, we have two more words that combine existing English words with the suffix -esque:

picturesque: This word started out as a French borrowing–pittoresque–but quickly morphed into picturesque because of the similarity of sound between pittor and picture. It means “having the qualities of a picture.” Example: “Fish Lake Country Club is a scenic 9-hole public golf course on the shores of picturesque Fish Lake just five miles east of Plankinton.”

statuesque: The English poet Coleridge may have coined this word on the pattern of picturesque: “Never did I behold aught so impressively picturesque, or rather statue-esque, as these Groups of Women in all their various attitudes (1799).” Statuesque means, “having the qualities of a statue; reminiscent of a statue in size, posture, or stillness.”

Perhaps the existence of picturesque and statuesque has influenced the use of -esque as an English suffix. Literary and art critics, for example, have a history of applying it to the names of authors and artists. Unlike entertainment writers who tend to hyphenate the suffix, critics write their coinages as one word: “Through her use of Browningesque dramatic monologues, Ai disturbs settled identities and calls cultural boundaries into question.” To understand this use of Browningesque, one must have read works such as “My Last Duchess” by the poet Robert Browning.

Other examples:
Audenesque (like Auden)
Caravaggiesque (like Caravaggio)
Chaplinesque (like Chaplin)
Dickensesque (like Dickens)
Disneyesque (like Disney)
Macalayesque (like Macalay)
Turneresque (like Turner)

This awkward and unlovely use of -esque has little to recommend it–unless the intent is to create a grotesque word.

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1 Response to “The Suffix -esque”

  • Andy Knoedler

    Since nobody has mentioned it yet, I’ll point out that the surname of the singer is spelled “Bieber.” Looking on Google under “Beiber,” I see many people are operating under the mistaken belief that “ei” is pronounced “ee.” However, it’s really just the same as in the word in the previous sentence (“belief”): “ie” = “ee.”

    That’s my pedantic moment for this week.

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