The Grammarphobia Blog

It’s like a marching band uniform

Q: I want to write that something is reminiscent of a marching band uniform. But “marching-band-uniform-esque” (with or without the hyphens) looks very awkward. Is there a standard way of putting something like this down in writing?

A: Well, “esque” is a good example of a suffix that’s sometimes an unsuitable attachment. It’s used to make adjectives out of nouns. But while it may work mentally and even in jocular speech, in written English it’s cumbersome when attached to the wrong noun or noun phrase.

Where does the suffix “esque” come from? Here it is in a nutshell:

We borrowed “esque” from the French esque, which came from the Italian esco, derived from the medieval Latin iscus, which came from ancient Germanic and is similar to the Old Teutonic isko, Old High German isc, Old English isc, modern German isch, and our own “ish.”

It’s interesting that English retains two suffixes from the same source: “esque” and “ish.”

Added to nouns, the Oxford English Dictionary says, “esque” forms adjectives in which “the suffix has the sense ‘resembling the style partaking of the characteristics of.’ “

For example, a “picaresque” novel has a “picaro” (a rogue, scoundrel, or bohemian) as its hero. We don’t often see “picaro” (from the Spanish pícaro) in English these days, but it lives on in “picaresque.”

The OED explains that “esque” is found in many words coming through French from Italian, “as in arabesque, burlesque, Dantesque, grotesque, romanesque.”

Our word “grotesque,” for example, adopted in the 1560s from the early modern French crotesque, was originally the Italian grottesco or grottesca.

In Italian, the OED says, words ending in esco are freely formed from the names of artists, and French and English writers have imitated this practice by attaching “esque” to names and other nouns to form adjectives.

“The words formed with this suffix on Eng. ns. are chiefly nonce-words of a jocular character, as cigaresque,” the OED says. (A nonce word is one made up for a particular occasion or special use.)

Examples of the suffix “esque” added to names include “Audenesque,” “Browningesque,” “Carlylesque,” “Chaplinesque,” “Dickensesque,” “Disneyesque,” and so on.

“Chaplinesque” is one thing, but “marching-band-uniformesque” is another! It just doesn’t work as a written form.

I’ve always felt that “esque” is overused to make awkward adjectives. It’s particularly clumsy when tacked on to nouns that end in a vowel, as in “Obamaesque.”

In answer to your question, why not simply say that it’s “like a marching band uniform”?

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