Peter Paul Rubens: The Three Graces (Wikimedia Commons)
When someone describes an experience as “Kafkaesque”, we get that it must have been nightmarish. “Orwellian” we understand as totalitarian in a futuristic kind of way, à la Orwell’s novel 1984. But why “-esque” for Kafka and “-ian” for Orwell? (And, indeed, why “ish” for nightmare and “istic” for future?) Why don’t we say Kafkaish, or Orwellistic?
There isn’t much rhyme or reason when it comes to choosing which of these suffixes to tack on the end of a noun to make it into an adjective: it’s one of those language choices that’s pretty much down to the ear, the context, what rolls most easily off the tongue, and just plain usage. We wouldn’t say “Orwellesque” or “Kafkaistic” because — well, we just wouldn’t. These tags don’t just turn nouns into adjectives: they can turn nouns into other nouns, or adjectives into other adjectives; the possibilities are many and the rules of their usage are suitably nebulous and hard to pin down. They can mean anything from “related to”, “characteristic of”, “in the style of”, “resembling” or “reminiscent of” to “full of”, “close to”, “somewhat” or even “approximately”. Although they’re often interchangeable, each has its own place where it seems to work best, and its own peculiar nuances.
-Ish is probably the broadest and most versatile of the tags: it can be added to more or less any noun (boyish, clownish) or adjective (yellowish, roundish) to mean “having the qualities or characteristics of” (“like a boy”, “somewhat yellow”). It’s an inherent part of many standard and long-established adjectives, eg. foolish, outlandish, stylish, coquettish, boorish, priggish, devilish; but it’s also been added informally to many words, which with their ish-tags have gone on to become — or are in the process of becoming — dictionary-standards. In fact, it’s sometimes hard to guess how long certain “ish” adjectives have been around: bookish and youngish are both hundreds of years old, but cartoonish made it into standard English only late last century. -Ish is the standard tag that makes adjectives out of nationalities (British, Swedish), and it’s used colloquially to approximate ages (“he’s 30-ish”) and times (“I’ll see you around five-ish”), so it’s a flexible friend and can be applied fairly indiscriminately. Ish is now recognized by some dictionaries as a slang word in itself (as a “sentence substitute”); Collins has it being used “to express reservation or qualified assent”, giving as an example: “Things are looking up. Ish.”
However, many will argue that -ish, with its slightly dubious and noncommittal nature, tends to have derogatory implications that its cousin ‘-esque’ manages to avoid; where -ish might suggest an unintended and undesirable whiff of something, -esque has an air of emulation about it, commanding a certain awe that -ish can’t quite muster. Meaning “in the style of”, “with the character of”, or “resembling”, -esque is often attached to names and proper nouns, especially artists (“Rubenesque”), writers (“Hardyesque”), and other famous figures (“Palinesque”, “Schwarzeneggeresque” (sic)). Formalized in a handful of adjectives like statuesque, picturesque and grotesque, it does tend to have an elevated or desired quality that other ish-tags lack –despite having attached itself to people like the former Alaskan governor. It lends itself well to irony…
-Y is slightly different again, having the sense of being “full of” or having “the quality of” — as in messy, milky, mousy. If tacked onto verbs it offers the sense of being “inclined” or “apt to” — hence sticky, runny, fussy, giggly or whiney. Like -ish, it often has depreciatory rather than complementary overtones: think boozy, tinny, stinky, moldy, creepy, dusty — even sugary suggests that there are one or two spoonfuls too many and not that it’s delightfully sweet. How many positive ‘-y’ adjectives can you think of that have been made from nouns or verbs? There’s also a subtle distinction that can be made between “-ish” and “-y”: a lime might be “lemonish” (ie. it might be yellowish and therefore look like a lemon), but a dessert is “lemony” if it has the taste of or is full of lemons.
-Istic is another adjective-maker that has its own shtick: it generally attaches itself to “isms”, i.e. actions, states, conditions or doctrines, or to the “ists” who promote or practice those isms. Hence feministic, moralistic, simplistic, legalistic or sadistic. Here’s another ish-tag that often carries negative connotations, but that’s probably more down to the perceived nature of the ism it describes rather than to the addition of the istic itself. StackExchange has more on this quirkyish discussion.
If you want to avoid any whiff of judgement when you’re next turning a noun or name into an adjective, just add the word “-like”. Then you’re probably safe. Ish.
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H/T to Lily