Escapee or escaper? Investigating –ee suffixes (and why they’re not always obvious)
‘-ee means something happens to you; -er means you do something: so employee, invitee (if you must), refugee but attender, escaper, etc, rather than attendee, escapee, etc.’ So says the Guardian style guide, and similar advice is given in many other usage guides. But is this the whole story? Attendee and escapee are now much more frequent than attender and escaper; do users of English have it all wrong, or is there more to the story?
What is the -ee suffix, and where does it come from?
The -ee suffix is typically added to a verb to form a noun denoting a person who is affected by the action expressed by the verb: an -ee word means ‘a person who is [verb]-ed’. In grammatical terms, the -ee word can correspond to the direct object, indirect object, or prepositional object of the verb. For example, if you employ a person, that person is an employee; if you pay a person money, that person is a payee; if you experiment on a person, that person is an experimentee.
To understand the history of these forms, we need to go back to late medieval England, where use of a form of French, Anglo-Norman, continued alongside English ever since the Norman Conquest. The law, in particular, was largely the province of Anglo-Norman French, although its vocabulary was naturally coloured by specific English practice, and remained so longer than any other field, until Law French, which had continued Anglo-Norman, was officially displaced by English in 1362. Even after that date, the influence of French on English legal vocabulary remained strong.
The suffix -ee was originally borrowed from French, but in French, unlike English, it is not a suffix used specifically to form nouns, but is the grammatical ending of the past participle. For example, in French appeler means ‘to call, to name, to accuse’ and the past participle appelé accordingly means ‘called, named, accused’. So, when the participle is used as a noun to describe a person, it means ‘someone who has been accused, an accused person’; in this sense, the word was in legal use in Anglo-Norman from the 13th century and was borrowed into English as appellee in the 16th century. Similarly, assigner means ‘to assign, to designate’, assigné means ‘assigned, delegated’, etc., and when used as a noun of a person it means ‘the assigned, the nominee’; this was in legal use in Anglo-Norman from the 14th century. It was soon borrowed into English, and we now have the word assignee.
The origins of -ee and -er/-or pairs
The establishment of the -ee suffix can partly be explained by the fact that, in legal use, nouns like appelé were used frequently in association with nouns with the suffix -our (French –eur) derived from the same verb. This suffix denoted the active counterpart, the agent, and typically corresponds to the English suffix -or: for example, Anglo-Norman apellour ‘accuser, plaintiff, appealer’ (borrowed into English as appellor). The preference for such pairs as Anglo-Norman appelé and appelour, assigné and assignour in legal use to denote the two parties involved in a case made it easier for the ending –é (later spelt -ee in English) to be interpreted as a suffix forming nouns when such paired words were eventually borrowed into English (as appellee and appellor, assignee and assigner/assignor).
An expanding range of uses
The pairing of such words meant that, even in Anglo-Norman, we can detect a tendency to generalize the -é suffix and use it to form such nouns even when they are not based directly on the sense of the past participles. For example, Anglo-Norman doné is used of someone to whom a gift is made (from about 1300 in legal use in Anglo-Norman; from the 16th century as a loanword in English), lessé of someone to whom a tenement is let (from the 14th century in legal use in Anglo-Norman; from the 15th century as a loanword in English), in each case referring to the person affected, rather than the thing that was given or let. Consequently, in both cases, the word as borrowed into English (donee, lessee) denotes the person affected, which sets up a pattern for native formations on this model in legal and related contexts.
The degree to which English formations of the type have become dissociated from the model of the French past participle and become an independent English suffix is demonstrated by vendee, a word which, characteristically, first appears in 1547 in a series together with three of the loanwords just discussed: ‘Such lessee, donee, vendee, or assignee’. Not only does vendee show the typical sense of the recipient, denoting the person sold to (rather than the thing sold), but it also formally diverges from the rules of French past participle formation: the correct grammatical form of the French past participle is vendu.
Cheatees, flirtees, borees: the productivity of the -ee suffix
The -ee suffix has become very productive since the 16th century, in a much wider range of contexts than its original use in law. Some forms are now well-established, such as payee, employee, examinee, and interviewee, but there are also many one-off or deliberately creative uses. To take some examples from OED entries: the 17th-century playwright Thomas Tomkis described a city as being full of nothing but ‘Cheaters and Cheateez’; Coleridge wrote of the lingering effects of anger that ‘the memory is all on the side of the Affrontee’; the philosopher J. S. Mill did not want to be the ‘boree’ on a subject; an article in the Saturday Review claimed that extra-marital flirting may be successful if the ‘flirt is clever, or the flirtee silly.’
Escaper or escapee? Some explanations
In all of these examples the use of -ee follows the regular pattern: a person who is cheated is a cheatee; a person who is flirted with is a flirtee. But since at least the 19th century another type of -ee word has come to be formed, corresponding not to the object but to the subject of a verb, usually an intransitive verb. For example, an escapee is a person who escapes; a recoveree is a person who recovers; a retiree is a person who has retired. This use of the suffix has sometimes been regarded as a particularly American phenomenon, but while some formations are North American in origin (e.g. retiree), others were first recorded in British English (e.g. signee).
Why were these -ee words coined, when we already have -er words to denote agents? Should an escapee be called an escaper? Some usage writers think so, but there are several reasons for the prevalence of escapee and similar formations.
One explanation is etymological. The early establishment of the pattern of -ee words with the sense ‘a person who is [verb]-ed’ did not prevent the borrowing of further noun uses of past participles from French that do not fit the established model, but instead reflect the underlying sense of the French verb. Thus, for example, French refugié, because it is formed from an intransitive verb, means ‘having fled’ and the French word is accordingly borrowed as noun into English as refugee in the sense ‘someone who has fled’ (in fact, in its attested earliest use in English specifically with reference to Protestant French refugees ). Nevertheless, the ending of this loan was identified with the now established -ee suffix and so this loanword in its turn became available as a model for further similar formations in English, such as later escapee.
Another explanation is that with some verbs, the subject of the intransitive form is the same as the object of a corresponding transitive construction. For example, return is predominantly intransitive (‘Brian returned to his hotel’) but it can also be transitive with the returned person as object rather than subject (‘the police returned Brian to his hotel’). So, although returnee is probably now understood as ‘a person who returns’, it could originally have been understood as ‘a person who has been returned’, like other -ee words.
It has also been argued that the motivation for these -ee words is semantic rather than grammatical: they typically refer to people who are affected by an action or event, or who lack control over that event. A standee, for example, is not just a person who stands but, usually, a person who is compelled to stand (on a bus, for example). This sense extends to people who have at one point been passive sufferers or victims: recoverees have indeed recovered but they were once ill; escapees have escaped, but they were once imprisoned; returnees are usually people who have returned from war or exile. If none of this semantic force is present, then an -er or other agent noun form is much more likely. A person returning to work or study, viewed as making an active choice, is usually called a returner rather than a returnee. In both ‘Jane attended the conference’ and ‘Jane attended the Queen’, Jane is the subject of attend, but in the first Jane would be called an attendee (her role at the conference is fairly passive), whereas in the second she is an attendant.
The creativity of language users
This semantic approach also explains some apparently illogical uses. A mortgagee, following the usual pattern of -ee words, is usually the person or organization to whom a property is mortgaged, while a mortgagor is a person who mortgages property: you are the mortgagor and your bank is the mortgagee. But, since the end of the nineteenth century, mortgagee has also been used to mean a person who has a mortgage, i.e. a mortgagor, as in an article in the New Scientist which discusses ‘the uninsured or underinsured mortgagee with no means of repaying the loan’ (1993). This usage makes sense when viewed in semantic terms: a person who has a mortgage is at the mercy of his or her bank. The semantic approach also explains why -ee words have, since at least the beginning of the twentieth century, been formed on parts of speech other than verbs. For example, a redundantee is a person who has been made redundant (not a person who has been ‘redundanted’); an asylee is a person who is seeking or has been granted political asylum.
All of this goes to show that, while language is often unpredictable, it is usually logical – to the speaker, at least, if not always to the speakee.