An ambiguous suffix explored
There seems to be something irresistibly droll about words in –ee which leads
journalists and other writers to constantly create new ones. Perhaps it is the belittling or diminutive sense that makes it seem funny (by analogy with such words as “bootee” or “townee”, using another sense of the –ee suffix) or perhaps it is the
mouse-like squeak of the ending that attracts. Whatever the cause, dozens of such words are generated each year, most of them destined to be used once and never seen again. Here are some examples, mainly extracted from the British newspapers The Guardian and The Independent on Sunday over the past couple of years:
arrestee, assaultee, auditee, auditionee, awardee, biographee, callee, contactee, contractee, counsellee, dedicatee, defrostee, detachee, electee, explodee, extraditee, fixee, flirtee, floggee, forgee, hittee, interactee, introducee, investee, lapsee, mentee, murderee, outee, ownee, phonee, pickee, rapee, releasee, rescuee, sackee, shortlistee, slippee, spinee, staree, tagee, ticklee, trampolee.
Most of these new words denote some person who is the passive recipient of the action concerned or is the one to whom something is done (for example, an extraditee is a person who is extradited; a murderee is the person who has been
murdered). For these words the suffix is being used in the same way it was when it was first introduced in medieval times as a word-forming agent in legal English. The
two suffixes -or and -ee formed a pair; the first indicating the person initiating the action, the second the one receiving it. So we have pairs like appellor and
appellee, lessor and lessee, and mortgagor and mortgagee. When the suffix
moved out of legal English into the wider world, it took this sense with it, so we have words like trustee (a person to whom something is entrusted), addressee
(someone addressed), referee (one to whom something is referred), transportee
(a person who has been transported to a distant colony as a punishment), and so on. The trouble came when a number of words appeared, derived from French reflexive verbs (where the subject and object are the same), in which the person concerned appears not to be the object of the activity, but the one who initiates it; an absentee
is someone who absents him- or herself, not someone who is “absented” by another
person; a refugee is actively seeking refuge, though that situation may have been brought about by others. These words have been used as a model for creating new ones and the result has been that we now have a number of words in which the useful distinction in the old legal terms has been lost or blurred. The example which is most often quoted is escapee, because the person who escapes is rarely a passive agent, but takes the initiative; a better word would be escaper. Similarly,
attendees are people who attend meetings or conferences (also called conferees),
but a strict interpretation of the suffix might suggest that in both cases those attending have had the experience inflicted upon them (often true, in my experience, but that’s not the sense meant). If the meeting is full, such people may also be
standees (people who are standing because there are no seats). Likewise, a retiree
is a person who has retired (though this action may in fact have been involuntary). An argument in favour of such words is that they have the nuance of denoting people for whom the action concerned has been completed: an escapee has
actually escaped, whereas an escaper may merely be escaping; a returnee is
someone who has actually returned, not just someone who is in the process of returning. But the context usually makes clear which is meant and this argument doesn’t hold for all such words.
Terms in –ee are often unattractive as well as illogical or confusing and, because of the humorous undertones of many of them, can sometimes signal the wrong message. It would be better to be cautious about inventing, or even using, words in –ee which are not part of the standard language, and even then, as in the case of escapee, to consider whether there is a better word.