There it was on the first page of Eric Larson’s new book The Splendid and the Vile about Churchill and the dark days of 1940–41: “Vonnegutian violence.” As in Kurt Vonnegut. He was a famous writer (Slaughterhouse Five; Cat’s Cradle) in the 1960s and I’ve read his books but I had never seen his name used as an adjective.
I recently published a piece on the “verbification” of well-known brands like Google Click here to read and it’s also the case that turning names into adjectives is an accepted practice for individuals who are known for some personal quality or a body of work or accomplishment. I’m just starting Larson’s book but I’m certain I’ll run across the word “Churchillian” many times before I hit the last page.
So, just as becoming a verb is one way to know that a company or brand is famous, perhaps we can conclude the same about people. You know you’ve had an impact when your moniker gets adjectivized (yes, that is a real word…).
Famous Writers as Adjectives
The most often used suffix for this is “-ian.” As in Orwellian. Or other famous writers as in Machiavellian or Proustian. Aristotelian. Dickensian. And for whatever reason the Bard when adjectivized is spelled differently: Shakespearean. But many other famous authors, don’t seem to be part of the adjective club like Twain. Tolstoy. Hemingway. Poe. Homer.
Wait! “Homeresque” has usage. Oops, never mind — that apparently refers to Homer Simpson as defined in the Urban Dictionary as “In the style or manner of, or resembling the lamebrained antics of Homer Jay Simpson. Clumsy, ignorant…” So fictional cultural icons can also be adjectivized.
Historical Figures as Adjectives
This literary device is used often with political and historical figures like Churchill. Wilsonian. Jeffersonian. Jacksonian. Hamiltonian. Hitlerian. Madisonian. Trumpian. Nixonian. We speak of the Julian Calendar because it was proposed first by Julius Caesar.
But why isn’t the adjective “Rooseveltian” used much at all despite FDR being in office so long and leaving a considerable historical legacy? We also don’t seem to adjectivize most recent presidents like Carter, Ford, Obama or Bush. I have run across “Clintonian,” but usually in a pejorative usage. The guidelines for this practice are vague indeed.
John Hancock is famous for his oversized signature on the Declaration of Independence and his name over the years has been used as a noun (“I need your John Hancock on the agreement…”) but that notoriety has never translated into an adjective.
The “-esque” rule?
Sometimes another suffix is used: “-esque.” And I think it is a tribute upgrade from “-ian.” It suggests a degree of charisma. As in Kennedyesque or Lincolnesque. Or Reaganesque. Or sometimes that suffix is used only because of how the person’s last name ends. Perhaps it is simply because “Kennedyian” or “Lincolnian” make for awkward pronunciation.
Similarly, the adjective for the existentialist author Franz Kafka is labeled Kafkaesque instead of the tongue twisting and cacophonous “Kafkaian.” Ditto with Dante/Dantesque. One of the informal guidelines, I guess, for making adjectives out of names is that it has to be easily pronounceable and it cannot commit a capital crime against accepted lexicon.
There is yet another variation on the theme. In English there are numerous words that end with the suffix “-ic,” meaning “pertaining to.” Electric. Lethargic. Eclectic. Sympathetic. You get the picture without me sounding, um, pedantic. But who exactly decided that Socrates and Plato would have the -ic designation for their adjectival form as in Socratic and Platonic?
I suppose that is a kind of Socratic question in itself…
About the author: Mike Hoban is a leadership coach and advisor who also writes about business topics, sometimes in a whimsical way. In addition to his 40 years experience as a leader and consultant he has also published extensively in Fast Company and also wrote a business column for 10 years. Many of his recent commentaries — including several about leading during the COVID crisis — can be found on his LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mike-hoban-b5756b6/ He can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.