Writing Corner: Custom Adjectives

One cool thing about English is that we make words out of everything (an example of this is the verb to word, which means to make a word out of anything).

One way we do this is to make adjectives out of people’s names. We usually use last names since they are more distinctive. Here is a long list of examples on Wikipedia.

Here are three examples using famous writer’s names:

Shakespearean – from William Shakespeare, another English writer in the 1500-1600s.

Dickensian – from Charles Dickens. He was an English writer in the 1800s

Lovecraftian – from H.P. Lovecraft, an American writer of the early 1900s.

Forming these adjectives

In English, we often create adjectives by adding endings on to other words. There are many of these endings, but some examples are:

-an/ian       (e.g. Canadian, Victorian)

-ic                (e.g. democratic, automatic)

-ish              (e.g. selfish, childish)

-al                (e.g. political, historical)

-esque         (e.g. picturesque, statuesque)

-ous             (e.g. fabulous, ominous)

-y                 (e.g. greasy, dizzy)

-ly                (e.g. friendly, godly)

-ist               (e.g. fascist, Buddhist)

There are lots of others, of course, but these are some of the main ones. For name words, we usually use -an/-ian or -esque. A lot of the established name adjectives we use end with -an/-ian but we can also use -esque a lot. More on that in a bit.

Pronouncing these words

English has this rule where we like to stress the third-last syllable. Not always, but often. An example is Canada, which we pronounce CA-na-da. However, when we make it an adjective it adds a syllable to the end, so it changes to ca-NA-di-an. This happens a lot when we are making adjectives of people’s names:

For example:

Dickens (DI-ckens) → Dickensian (Di-CKEN-si-an)

Shakespeare (SHAKE-speare) → Shakespearean (Shake-SPEAR-e-an)

Meaning of these Adjectives

When we use adjectives of people’s names, there are two different meanings it can have.

The first is the literal meaning: the thing we are talking about it of that person. For example, we could say “Hamlet is a Shakespearean play” since Shakespeare wrote it. It’s his play. This type of meaning is used more in academic writing, since if we were talking, we would probably just say “Hamlet was written by Shakespeare”.

The other type of meaning is the metaphorical meaning. This is where we are not talking about the person, but about some idea that is connected to them.

For example

Shakespearean English

This means the type of English that was used when Shakespeare was alive. Shakespeare wasn’t the only one who spoke like that; everyone did back then. But he wrote it down so we associate it with him.

A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears: see how yond justice rails upon yon simple thief.

King Lear, Act 4, Scene 7
We envy his writing ability
Dickensian neighborhood

The metaphorical meaning of Dickensian is dirty, poor, unhealthy. This is because Charles Dickens wrote a lot about poor people in England in the 1800s in cities where their lives were just like this. He didn’t create the problems but we associate them with his writings. So a Dickensian neighborhood would be one like this, that was poor, dirty, and unhealthy.

We don’t envy these people
Lovecraftian monster

H.P. Lovecraft wrote cosmic horror about huge powerful monsters that would drive you insane just to look at them. He was the first one to be famous writing this kind of story, so if we talk about something being Lovecraftian, it is like something he might write about.

Nobody envies this guy.

Making your own Adjectives

As I talked about in my post called The Magic of Language, one cool aspect of language is that we can make up new words. We do this all the time as a society.

Although the most common ending for name adjectives is -an/-ian, when you are making new adjectives, the best ending to use is -esque. That is because -esque can be used with pretty much any noun and means “like …”

Some examples from popular culture with possible meanings:

Simpsons-esque             similar humor to The Simpsons

I was attracted to her and her zany, Simpsons-esque sense of humor.

George Cloony-esque      similar to the style and charm of George Clooney

Their eyes met and he flashed her his classic George Clooney-esque grin.

(Harry) Potteresque        related to the Harry Potter book series or to a world of secret magic in a modern world

I was planning a sprawing, Potteresque garden epic with the tiger lilies on one side and the witch hazel on the other side.

A hyphen is not necessary but you can put it in for clarity. If you are talking about a person, it’s good to add their first name if the last name is not distinctive (e.g. last names like Trump or Obama will make you think of one particular person, but names like Smith or Singh could be many different people).

If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at info@greenwalledtreehouse.com.

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