Meaning of the suffix “-ee”

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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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13 thoughts on “Meaning of the suffix “-ee””

  1. How about protestee? (The boat being protested)
    Could not find it in Mirriam-Webster OD, but in use in the Racing Rules of Sailing for many years.

  2. I am so tempted to use ‘coachee’ as someone who is being coached. Is there a suitable alternative that sounds so concise?

  3. How about nominee? That’s pretty prevalent…

    As for the “coachee”… Would not pupil or student be more appropriate?

  4. Good suggestions for Coachee, however the people this particular issue involves are adult staff at an educational institute. Therefore, pupil or student would probably be inappropriate – the search goes on.

  5. Message flashed upon a large screen in a Houston, TX church:
    “Mentors and Mentees meeting Thursday’s at 6:00 p.m.”
    “Mentees” and a stray apostrophe in one sentence!

  6. What a charming “voice” you have. Your students must find you easy to listen to and learn from. Yes, I agree that the -ee phenomenon is getting out of hand. Thanks for a jovial take on it.

  7. You English people sometimes rub me the wrong way. If the first 8 words ever created were:

    development of the language would have ended there. Any time someone tried using a new word, one of you would have said “you can’t say that, it’s not a word”

  8. If you eye someone up, you are the eyer, and the person you are looking up and down should be – I fondly imagine – the eyee.

  9. When transcribing an interview, what is a suitable alternative for ‘interviewee’? You have the interviewer, asking the questions, surely not ‘the ‘interviewered’, or the intervieweed’, answering the questions?

  10. I remember teaching the differences between the one doing and the one receiving many years ago and fell into my own verbal trap. After half an hour of obsessing over words that ended in -er or -or as the ones doing, and those ending in -ee as the ones receiving, my students reminded me that I had two students taking a make-up exam in the guidance office. As the bell was about to ring for lunch dismissal, I hastened across the hall to the guidance office, looked across the desks of the three counselors and secretaries and asked if anyone had seen my two test-ees. The quirky looks and the immediate response of the head counselor reddened me with mortification. He said, “If you don’t know where they are, far be it from me to show you.” he doubled over as I retreated looking for rock under which to interminably hide.

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