Oprah's latest Book Club pick, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities, seems Dickensian in its sweeping two-for-one scope. But why? Not why Dickens, but why Dickensian and not Dickensesque? Would one call Springsteen's early work Dylan-esque? Dylanian?

 

A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations

  

Two of Victorian writer Charles Dickens's most well known works made it into Oprah's Book Club this month, and as a Dickens fan, I'm happy to see it.

 

I immediately  remembered my high school days, dozing over Tale while the teacher droned on about the French Revolution, the protagonist, characterization, and other such "Will this be on the test?" items. But I would devour Dickens's thrilling tale of Britain and France late at night, fascinated by the story's sweep and scope and the author's sometimes one-dimensional but nonethess vivid characters.

 

Later, watching David Lean's 1946 classic film of Great Expectations, I once again fell under the spell of Dickens's storytelling, as Pip tugged my heartstrings and Miss Havisham scared me out of my wits. There isn't any other word for it: The stories are Dickensian, a term describing that instantly recognizable mix of melodrama, unforgettable characters, narrative breadth, and acute insight into human nature. 

 

Words derived from proper names are eponyms, and they are legion. The majority are nouns or possessives, especially used in medicine (Chagas' Disease, Lou Gehrig's Disease), but a good number are adjectival. Consider the fleshy beauties who are proudly Rubenesque (curiously, not Rubensesque, even though the word is derived from renaissance master Peter Paul Rubens), the football coaches and businesspeople who strive for Machiavellian wiliness, the fans of Cartesian duality.

 

But how do these words evolve? Why do some end in -an or -ian (as the Chicago Manual of Style recommends when an eponymous adjective form of a proper noun can't be found in the dictionary) and others in -esque? Do they evolve in a Darwinian mannar, as the fittest survives and other forms disappear for lack of popular use?

 

My search led me to no a-ha moments. It seems that like so much in English, the development of adjectival epoynyms has been based on idiomatic usage, or "what sounds right." Certainly, Chicago is correct in noting that the suffix -ian is added to a name ending in a consonant, while -an is usually added to a name ending in e or i. The -esque suffix, derived from French, seems to appear appended most often to names ending in -n, -s, or -r: consider Rubenesque, Dylanesque, and Romanesque.

 

But that rule is not hard and fast. All too soon, I realized my search for a rhyme or reason was, alas, Kafkaesque.

 

Why do you think some proper nouns take -esque instead of -an? Do you have an answer?

 

Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.

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Comments
by Author MichellePillow on ‎12-08-2010 08:33 PM

Love this post. :smileyhappy:

by Blogger Ellen_Scordato on ‎12-09-2010 11:38 AM

Thanks, Michelle! any fave eponyms of yours?

by Fricka on ‎12-11-2010 08:42 AM

What fun! I have always loved Dickens' works, and a great part of my reading enjoyment is from his creative use of names. As to whether one should use "esque" or "ian", I think depends at least somewhat on the author's last  name. I will test that by looking at the names of some current popular writers. For example, I think  JK Rowling's name could lend itself to either adjectival description of "Rowlingesque" or "Rowlingian", although I personally prefer the former to the latter. (Rowliingian sounds more like a historical period than a reference to writing style, I think--reminds me of the Merolingian period, and others like it)

So far, so good. Now let's try a name like Grisham. Grishamesque or Grishamian? Clancy-- Clancyesque or Clancyian? Meyeresque or Meyerian? I may be simplifying this too much, but it seems to me that names that end with a consonant can fit well with either "esque" or "ian" while names that end with a vowel, as Clancy's  does, sound better when used with -esque.

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