Meaning of the suffix “-ee”
This is a guest post by Tony Hearn. If you want to write for Daily Writing Tips check the guidelines here.
Time was when the suffix -ee lived a quiet and well-ordered life in its own restricted little corner. Your bank slips would ask for the name of the payee, perhaps. Lawyers would talk about vendee and grantee. It was clear enough. The entity with the -ee was the recipient. All neat and tidy. But no more.
I don’t know what it’s been fed, but -ee is now mutant and rampaging.
The suffix is derived through French -é(e) ultimately from the Latin suffix -a-tus. For those who care, it’s the past participle of -a- stem verbs, signifying something having been done. As such it is ‘passive’, not ‘active’. Hence the agent is the ‘payer’ and the recipient the ‘payee’.
In its passive sense it’s been around for a long while, especially in the Law. Vendee and grantee, for example, refer to the indirect object of an action (the person to whom something is done). Payee refers to a direct object (the recipient of an action).
Interviewee as someone being interviewed dates from 1880-85. Trainee is unexceptionable enough.
Taxee, ‘a person who is taxed’ has made its ugly appearance in the Urban Dictionary, though it remains unknown to my published dictionaries.
More such misfits exist. Somewhere along the line someone who should have known better morphed the suffix -ee into an all-purpose active termination. Absentee seems to be an early example (1537!), but here perhaps the idea is that a person has absented himself.
No such excuse attaches to the modern plague. Now we have ‘attendees’ who should surely be ‘attenders’. This gains 456,000 hits on a Google search! Apparently the rot set in early: the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary gives 1937 as the earliest citation. And what about ‘standee’: 147,000 hits? Have our readers got any more horrors to add to this rogues’ gallery?
I am left wondering whether my bank clerk knows the difference any longer between ‘payer’ and payee’. It could make a lot of difference!
Tony Hearn has had a lifetime’s love affair with language and with English in particular. As a Primary School teacher in England he has promoted a love of language and the importance of a mastery of its use. He enjoys the byways of websites like The Phrase Finder.
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