Friday, March 20, 2009





Nominee, attendee, escapee.

We like the –ee suffix. We took it from the French, where it (actually ée) is a feminine suffix, for which the masculine form is é. The woman one is about to marry is one’s fiancée, and the man one is about to marry is one’s fiancé — pronounced alike, as fee-ahns-AY.

But for most of the rest of those sorts of words, we’ve anglicized the ending, using the double-e version exclusively, omitting the accent mark, and pronouncing it like the sounds of the letters “e” themselves.

A few may still say dev-oh-TAY, but we’d consider them affected. And no one says em-ploy-AY — when Anna Leonowens does, in The King and I, she corrects herself.

Your servant? Your servant?
I’m sure I’m not your servant,
Although you pay me less than servant’s pay.
I’m a full and independent employ–AY!
... Employ–EE!
Mr Hammerstein had to make it rhyme, you say... see.

We like the suffix so well that we freely use it, turning pretty much any part of speech into a description of someone who does something (attendee, devotee, escapee) or to whom something is done (grantee, nominee, addressee).

The abandon with which we use it sometimes tends toward the comical, and sometimes we mean it that way, as with stuckee. Sometimes, though, it just gets silly, or awkward. Sometimes it can be grating.

Mentee is one of those, commonly accepted now, but... somehow irritating. One thinks there should be a proper word for “someone receiving the advice of a mentor,” and we’re using this one because we can’t think of the right one just now. But there isn’t one. I like acolyte, myself, which American Heritage defines as “a devoted follower.” But I only use that jokingly, because it carries a connotation of greater subservience, or at least greater deference than is appropriate for the case of a mentor and her subject.

So we’re the stuckees of “mentee”. But there’s one we can still resist, the one I dislike the most:

Delegatee. There is no point to this one; there never was a point to this one. There is a proper word for this. A person to whom you delegate (del-uh-gayt) a task is your delegate (del-uh-git). We don’t need to make up another word.

And for the last word, I’ll leave it to American Heritage, which so often has wonderful “usage notes” that make it my favourite dictionary. They come through again here, with one in the entry for –ee1, this from the third edition:

Usage Note: Reflecting its origins in the French passive participle ending –é (feminine –ée), the suffix –ee was first used in English to refer to indirect objects and then to direct objects of transitive verbs, particularly in legal contexts (as in donee, lessee, or trustee) and in military and political jargon (draftee, trainee, or nominee). Beginning around the mid-19th century, primarily in American English, it was often extended to denote the agent or subject of an intransitive verb; for example, standee, returnee, or attendee. Although the pattern is very common and a number of these coinages, such as honoree, deportee, and escapee, have become widely accepted, in general they retain an informal character as jocular nonce words.


Ray said...

There's a common misuse of the ending 'ee' that drives me nuts every time I see it: warrantee, as in "This doo-hickey comes with a 28-year warrantee".

I can only assume the (mis)user is getting confused with 'guarantee', but still. And did I mention it drives me nuts? Nuts, I tell you!

Barry Leiba said...

Right... when, of course, the correct version is that if you buy a doo-hickey that has a warranty, you, to whom the warranty is given, become the warrantee.

Oh, we're such confusees!

A'Llyn said...

I HATE 'mentee.' Despise it. It makes me cringe, froth at the mouth, and begin chewing on furniture.

I've seen 'protégé' used for the recipient of mentoring, although it's not completely right either. That whole 'protection' aspect is a little off.

I'll use it over 'mentee,' however, for which, did I mention? I have a somewhat irrational but nevertheless passionate distaste.