"ese" suffix insulting/racist?

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Sun Apr 6 17:27:49 UTC 2003

>    The suffix -ese is neither racist nor insulting. But it *has*
>become productive in English to indicate with mild humor something
>that is incomprehensible, based on its presence in "Chinese,"
>"Japanese."  There are many examples, but the only one that comes to
>mind now is "Stengelese."

I think of "bureaucratese" first. "X-ese" as a noun here = "language of X".

The suffix "-ese" is apparently the English reflex of Latin genitive ending
"-ensis", which is still used as a sort of default genitive in modern
Latin. So for example the organism Nocardia beijingensis is the Nocardia
"of Beijing", while Legionella pittsburghensis refers to the Legionella "of
Pittsburgh", while Pseudomonas wisconsinensis is named after Wisconsin,
etc. Similarly a University of Wisconsin seal might read "Universitatis
Wisconsinensis Sigillum" = "Seal of the University of Wisconsin". So the
long-term etymology does not support the "derogatory" thesis.

Why is "-ese" more frequent in application to East Asia? There are
"Portuguese", "Viennese", "Faroese", etc., in Europe, but there are many
more "-eses" in Asia ("Shanghainese", "Pekinese", "Siamese", "Sundanese",
"Singhalese", etc., etc.): is it because East Asians (along with persons
from Vienna or the Faroes perhaps?) are/were despised? I would say no, it
is because places far from the Roman Empire had no names in Latin and
therefore no natural genitive endings, so they tend to take the 'default'
ending "-ensis", thus "-ese" (with some obvious exceptions where a name
looks like it could conform to another Latin paradigm, e.g.,
"Korea"/"Korean"). Scotland was known to Rome, so a bacterium named after
Scotland for example is Actinobacillus scotiae (NOT "scotlandensis" or
whatever) using the established genitive ending for Scotia = Scotland.
Neither Japan nor Wisconsin (nor Congo) was known to Rome, so their names
lack declensions from classical Latin. [No doubt my perception is absurdly
oversimplified, and perhaps I'm completely in error on some of my examples.
The place-names in many cases actually came through French and other
Romance languages, I believe.]

-- Doug Wilson

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