Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Oh what a tangled web we weave...

...when we try to organize our thoughts about language ...
(and it's no accident that the idea of weaving is at the root of the word text – 'from PIE root *teks- "to weave, to fabricate, to make; make wicker or wattle framework."', as Etymonline puts it. They quote Robert Bringhurst, from The Elements of Typographic Style:
An ancient metaphor: thought is a thread, and the raconteur is a spinner of yarns -- but the true storyteller, the poet, is a weaver. The scribes made this old and audible abstraction into a new and visible fact. After long practice, their work took on such an even, flexible texture that they called the written page a textus, which means cloth.
I've written before about the damage done by thinkers about language, who create their whole petty world of Mrs Thistlebottom's "rules", policed by Strunk & White, purveyors of jackboots to all discerning grammar Nazis. Here, for example, I wrote
When Dr Johnson defined a lexicographer as 'a harmless drudge' I think he knew what he was doing. Lexicographers can make life much more difficult for students. They say 'Look, what a boon is standardization'; but look at the mess they make!
(Interested readers can look in that post for examples of the mess.)

But, as  a representative of a pattern-loving species I have to put my hand up for the fault of  seeing rules where there is only (messy, almost chaotic) usage.

In The Changing English Language (my entree into Linguistics, which I first read in the late 1960s), Brian Foster wrote:

Nouns ending in "-ee" have long been a feature of the English  vocabulary, and such a modern-looking  formation as "payee"  goes back to the 18th century, while "recognizee" (the person to whom one is bound in a recognizance) is dated 1544 by the SOED, These particular examples show the fairly characteristic passive meaning implied by this suffix..

There are many examples of this passive sense. The Macmillan English Dictionary (not a notable authority, but the publisher of the dictionary software I happen to use) lists addressee, amputee,  appointee, deportee, detainee, employee, evacuee, franchisee, inductee, internee, interviewee, licensee, nominee and payee – all unarguable  patients of the verb in question. An element of indirectness is discernible in referee: the person is not referred; what is referred (to the referee) is a point of fact or interpretation. Devotee is also different, in  that the actor and the patient of the act are one and the same – except in the case  of forced conversions (where "devotee" would in any case be a misnomer). And the passiveness in the case of retiree is questionable; some people "of pensionaable age" are happy to put their feet up; it is only their more dedicated colleagues who fit the passive pattern and are retired  against their will.

But Brian Foster goes on to say

Such indeed is the usefulness of this device that an endless succession of nonce-words based on it  is made possible,  like the one made up by Gilbert Harding when he wrote in his Book of Manners that '... a hug from the Russian bear might well crush the huggee to death.' This semi-humorous [HD Only semi- ? Well, maybe not a rib-tickler, but definitely jocular] procedure is not a new one, for in Mr.  Sponge's Sporting Tour, published in 1853, R. S. Surtees refers to a person being toasted as the 'toastee'.

But, he goes on

... the possibility of using this suffix in an active sense is old-established, because 'absentee' goes back to 1537 and 'refugee' came into the language in 1685, the year of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV when many French Huguenots fled the country to escape persecution. Escapee is attested in 1865...

Hang on, I thought when I read this. S'abstenir is reflexive anyhow, so someone who does it to him/herself is an absentee with no problem for the seeker after passives. And both  s'échapper and se refugier are as my old French master would have said verbes de déplacement: someone who has escaped s'est échappé[e], and someone who has sought refuge s'est refugié[e]; again, there's no problem for the passive-o-phile. (If you've met the argument about 17th- and 18th-century grammarians making the mistake of trying to force English into the grammar of Latin [so, for example, no sentence-final prepositions], you may get a sense of dêjà vu here: it's just that the mistake here is the adducing of French grammar.)

So despite evidence to the contrary, I still have a quiet resentment of arriviste non-passives like attendee.
This issue came to a head when I was in a working group that had rotating minute-takers. Many of my colleagues had knocked up a clever bit of time-saving software that highlighted differences from meeting to meeting. As I was their junior, and they expected a flag to mean Something's new rather than Bob's at it again, I soon learnt not to change Attendees: to Present:

But that evidence to the contrary  (to the contrary, that is, of the passive implication of -ee endings) keeps mounting. Attendees are joined by resignees, even dilutees (unskilled workers who dilute the skill-level of a group of skilled workers).  I feel that these new -ee words with no passive implication are in some sense regrettable. But they happen, and a student of language can only recognize it and avoid creating yet another angels-on-a-pinhead  "rule" for the unwary to stub their toes on (and yes, I did write their).  



Some clues:
  • Before? After? Get up, with last going first. Ridiculous! (12)
  • Truncated Hamlet done recast as contemporary political thriller. (8)
Update: 2018.11.22.10:30 – Added PPS.


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