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.