On the shortlist of the American Dialect Society's word of the year for 2012 was Gangnam-style. It lost out to hashtag, but like the winner, it's a compound word (in fact all of the nominees were) and it points up an interesting feature of English: the way that people coin adjectives with the productive suffix -style, and the way in which speakers are assumed to interpret them correctly on the basis of real-world knowledge; such compounds are rarely defined in dictionaries.

Several years ago in the lounge I talked about a similar phenomenon with the suffix -shaped. When tacked onto a noun, it is intended to tell the listener everything they need to know about the contours of something, without recourse to a dictionary look-up. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't. Forming an adjective with -style seems to depend on an array of the noun meanings of style: namely, "how something is done or how it happens," "a characteristic way of expressing something," and "a particular kind." But unlike adjectives formed with ­shaped, -colored, or -like, an adjective formed with -style gets as much, if not more of its meaning from the noun that follows it as from the one that precedes it. When a multifaceted phenomenon is characterized as being in the style of some other multifaceted thing, which aspects of meaning do you choose to transfer? We looked at some of the most frequent -style compounds to shed some light on this.

The most frequently occurring -style compound in English is old-style. Unlike many -style compounds, it does have a dictionary definition, though it's usually a technical one, referring to a typeface or to time reckoned according to the Julian calendar. When people use old-style, however, it's not usually one of these meanings. More typically, they mean "the way it used to be," as in old-style barbershop or old-style snowshoes. Interestingly, among the most salient right-hand companions of old-style are politics, political, politico, and politician. These compounds occur many dozens of times daily in English news media without explanation and are not defined in dictionaries. It begs the question of when the new style in politics began. Did it all change at once? How can you really distinguish an ordinary politician of the present day from an old-style one? Overall, old-style is more than five times more frequent than new-style, and new-style politicians are nowhere to be found.

A sizeable chunk of the most frequently occurring -style compounds are taken up by adjectives in which the first term is a geographic noun or adjective: Japanese-style, Las Vegas-style, Hollywood-style, French-style. These terms typically call on well-known, and perhaps stereotyped associations with the places in question that draw much more on human culture than on geography, such as Japanese-style woodblock designs or Hollywood-style glamorization. Two of the top three contenders in this category in a massive corpus of world English are American-style, and US-style, perhaps reflecting the pervasive influence that the United States has on the world culture of English.  Rounding out the top three is Western-style, which sometimes refers to cowboys and their milieu but more often refers to such things as Western-style capitalism, democracy, and education. The compound European-style occupies the number four slot in frequency in American English but not across a broader set of world dialects. This is probably due to the American obsession with all things European, which I talked about in the Lounge in June 2010.

Most decades of the 20th century (the 1920s to the 1990s) figure prominently in -style compounds. In a recent Macmillan Dictionary blog post, Michael Rundell noted that the 1960s are the most talked-about decade of the 20th century, judging by corpus data he had consulted. That may be so for nouns denoting the decades, but when a decadal marker teams up with -style, the 60s are further down the list. The winner of the 20th-century style sweepstakes is the 1950s. Why would that be?

A look at the collocations formed with 1950s-style, 50s-style and fifties-style gives some clues. The greatest number of theseadjective modify artifacts, perhaps reflecting the perception that the 1950s had a unified and now widely admired set of designs, styles, and motifs. There are instances of 1950s-style houses, toasters, dresses, aprons, lamps, kitchens, and diners. There are also some compounds suggestive of nostalgia, such as "50s-style innocence" and  "1950s-style domesticity." The present-day styling of the 1950s in this way may be due to the strong influence that baby-boomers exercise over the written word — the fifties represents the period of the childhood and adolescence of many of them — and it may also be due to the wistful perception of the 1950s as the last unselfconscious decade,  the last decade in which popular culture was not constantly holding up a mirror to itself for purposes of self-congratulation.

An interesting and grim -style adjective with high frequency credentials is execution-style. Its right-hand companions are typically murder, killing, slaying, death, and the like. The adjective is frequently in the news, most recently in reference to a fugitive who has been placed on the FBI's Most Wanted list for her "execution-style murder of a New Jersey state trooper" 40 years ago. Native speakers have no difficulty fixing the meaning here, though it most cases it is with no help from dictionaries: many dictionaries do not cover the intended meaning of execution in this compound, though it is in the Visual Thesarus: namely, "unlawful premeditated killing of a human being by a human being."

Four -style compounds that have more than a hundred instances in the corpus we looked at are formed with a proper noun that refers to a product of human endeavor. These bear looking at for the influence they have achieved, and the interesting contrasts they represent as components of modern culture. One is Shaker-style, in reference to the now extinct, mainly 19th-century religious community whose simple and utilitarian domestic designs are still emulated today. The other adjectives reflect the influence of more recent popular culture. There is Bond-style (usually appearing as James Bond-style), reflecting the huge number of popular stereotypes that have emerged from the novels and films featuring the suave secret agent. These include such terms as Bond-style villain, action, or adventure. Another frequent adjective is Matrix-style, referring to the science fiction franchise that began with the 1999 film The Matrix. Here the compounds are largely about spectacle, such as Matrix-style special effects or action sequences. The last of the four, and perhaps a further reflection of the media-driven age we live in, is MTV-style, where compounds such as MTV-style video, editing, and jump cuts propel this adjective to lofty ranks of frequency — and  present a very peculiar contrast with Shaker-style.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Monday June 3rd 2013, 2:13 AM
Comment by: Peter J. (San Diego, CA)
Mr. Hargraves,

I was surprised to see the title of this illuminating blog entry presented as "Self Styling" and not as "Self-Styling." I once spent far too much time going through the OED trying to find an instance of the prefix "self" not being compounded with a hyphen. (As things turned out, I found five such instances, but they were each so arcane that I have forgotten them. Suffice it to say they would not be found in any sort of usual conversation.)

Subsequent to reading this blog entry, I noted a reference to your June 1, 2010, entry titled "European Style," with no hyphen, yet you refer to "European-style" (with a hyphen) in this current entry.

Is there something, some opaque grammatical rule, about titles and hyphens that I, an English professor, somehow missed? The answer to this question is probably either "yes," or "it it depends on whose style book one is using," but I am really rather curious about this. Any elucidation you could provide me would be gratefully accepted.

In the meantime -- and for some time to come -- please keep up the excellent "Language Lounge" blog. I look forward to each weekly edition.

Thank you,
Peter R Jacoby
Monday June 3rd 2013, 5:48 AM
Comment by: Hovannes K.
Hello Mr. Hargraves,

Is the intended meaning of "execution" in execution-style the "unlawful premeditated killing" or the circumstance of preventing the person killed from having any capability of self-defense? Particularly, because "execution" has the favor of law in legal systems that do accept the idea of death penalty, unlike the right-hand companions (I liked the sardonic pun!) of "execution-style" murder, killing, etc.

Monday June 3rd 2013, 9:15 AM
Comment by: Daniel B. (Bozeman, MT)
Mr. Hargraves,
As always, you give us a well-written and useful article. However, your use of the phrase "begs the question" in the third paragraph may elicit a few comments from those who read it in its earlier sense.

Thanks for your blog.
Monday June 3rd 2013, 10:33 AM
Comment by: Jan S. (Brookline, MA)
And not only "begs the question" - though that jarred me too, but also "to tell the listener everything they need to know." Have we really come to that? Substituting "listeners" for "the listener" would have been such an easy fix.

Still and all (or "that said," as the saying now goes), it was a useful and informative article.
Tuesday June 4th 2013, 8:25 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Peter: I did not see a need to join the two words in the title ‘Self Styling’ since the purpose of the hyphen is usually to force a particular interpretation. ‘European style’ is a noun phrase. ‘European-style’ is an adjective.

Hovannes: Interesting question. I’ve always understood ‘execution-style’ to allude to the way that organized criminals got rid of their enemies. It’s definitely a compound that needs to be examined by lexicographers and added to dictionaries.

Dan: The meaning of ‘beg the question’ I intended was ‘assume the truth of an argument or proposition to be proved, without arguing it,’ which I believe is the earlier sense. I agree that a newer sense, ‘raise a point that has not been dealt with; invite an obvious question,’ also applies.

Jan: Some ‘came to that’ centuries ago; others have yet to arrive. I don’t think you’ll be able to say ‘we’ have really come to that until you include yourself, and it doesn’t seem that you do yet!

Thanks to all for your comments.
Tuesday June 4th 2013, 9:40 AM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
"Old style" has a separate, distinct meaning in typography. An old style typeface -- occasionally written Old Style or oldstyle, but for some reason never hyphenated -- is based on Renaissance hand-lettering and has a left-leaning axis. Century Old Style (created in 1908-1909) is one of the most famous of the old style fonts; there's a more recent font, developed for computer use, that's simply called OldStyle. http://www.dafont.com/oldstyle-hplhs.font
Tuesday June 4th 2013, 9:58 AM
Comment by: Sue B.
Nancy F., I don't know enough about typography to even know what I'm looking at in that link, but I was expected something that leaned sort of backwards (left-leaning, right?). I didn't see that--what should I have been looking for?
Tuesday June 4th 2013, 4:40 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Sue B.: The angle is subtle, and obviously doesn't apply to the italic versions. Here's an explanation of typographic axis: http://desktoppub.about.com/od/glossarya/g/axis.htm

And here's even more: http://seco.glendale.edu/~rebeccah/132/wk2/classification.html

And now I think we've hijacked this thread sufficiently!
Tuesday June 4th 2013, 8:32 PM
Comment by: Sue B.
Thanks, Nancy--good links! I'm fascinated by fonts and typefaces (loved the movie "Helvetica"), even though I have no business with them.

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What does it mean when you call something "European-style"?
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Compounds ending in "-shaped" rarely make it into dictionaries.