Daily Archives: February 22, 2011


Today I got an email newsletter from an acquaintance, or anyway his business, inveighing against an inconsistency of usage. “The legal inspired way of converting verbs into nouns by adding ‘ee’ to the end of the verb has been out of hand for some years now,” the newsletter informs me. It notes that while an employer employs an employee, and a payer pays a payee, an escaper does not escape from an escapee, nor an attender attend an attendee nor a stander stand on a standee.

Agh! How awful and nasty! These dreadful inconsistencies! How could they have escaped us, these, ah, these escapees from a linguistic loony bin?

Indeed, I too have long thought escapee, attendee, and standee to be odd exceptions to the apparent pattern, where the ee is the object, not the subject, of the action. However, before we launch a crusade, there are some things that ought not to escape us.

First, as the newsletter says, this has been going on for some years now. To be precise, escapee has been around since at least 1876, and standee since at least 1831 – while attendee is a newcomer, having shown up in the mid-20th century. On the other hand, employee was around by 1850 (and its older form, straight from the French, employé, since 1834); payee, genuinely venerable, was with us by 1758.

The fairly indiscriminate usage of ee to denote a party somehow associated with an action, well established especially in North America for a century and a half (meaning it’s very well entrenched, like many other illogical things in our language, and why did you ever expect logic from English?), stems, it is quite true, from an original Norman French suffix denoting the direct object of an action. I employ you; you are employed; you are an employee. It has spread to various other uses; for instance, a lessee is not a property that has been let but the person to whom it is let. And, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “in a few words . . . the suffix is applied app. aribtrarily” – for example devotee.

But, then, why not call out payee as well? If you pay someone, you are actually paying money to them – they are the indirect, not the direct, object of the action: the money is not called the payee. (The OED points out also that someone is the payee even before they have been paid, as long as they are the one who is supposed to be paid.) This would also put a hole in standee referring to what is stood on – naturally, to be consistent it would refer to what is stood.

And, on the other hand, some actions where we think of the grammatical subject as the agent may also be viewed as having the subject on the receiving end. For instance, if I am a devotee, I may devote myself to something or someone, but we do say that I am devoted to it. And it just happens that, while we now say I have escaped, we formerly said I am escaped. You’ll find that usage throughout the King James version of the Bible, for instance – see Psalm 124 for an example: “Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers.” Escaping was not an action so much as a state change that we underwent. I am escaped; I am an escapee.

This was also true with a number of other verbs – I am fallen and I am come are two. And at this point a light should be on over the heads of those who speak Romance languages. What are those phrases in French? Je suis tombé (not J’ai tombé) and Je suis venu (not J’ai venu).

This does not, mind you, excuse attendee. But this is English, and there will ever be escapees from the expected patterns, won’t there? Anyway, you can use other words, for example audience members.

But still, why not escaper? That was, after all, what was used in the King James Bible. Yes, that’s right – the theoretical justification for escapee on the basis of usage 400 years ago does run up against the fact that escapee has only been in use since 1876 (remember?). And escaper is a nice amphibrach, three syllables with the stress squarely on the middle one. With escapee, you have two “long” vowels and so can’t avoid stressing both of the last two syllables – and, while you’re at it, you might stress the first one too. It sounds like a three-letter initialism: “SKP”.

I won’t say that I think that that is the very reason for the success of escapee. More likely it’s because it’s the more marked and high-level-sounding word, and we do tend to like those. But now I’m wondering, if I here deny that the word escapee came originally from SKP, standing for (let’s see… hmmm…) Subject of the King’s Prison, how long it will take before someone forwards me an email in which it is contended in all earnest that that is exactly where escapee originally came from.

And, really, with rubbish false etymologies being sent around like email herpes, a bit of derivational inconsistency seems hardly even a punishable offence, let alone one that might involve a jailbreak…


The English have long had a liking for playing with words, often mutilating foreign words for fun. I remember a British veteran of WWI telling me that the soldiers had taken to pronouncing Ypres as “wipers”.

There are also stories of Rotten Row, the name of an avenue in Hyde Park, being a bastardization of Route du roi, and of Elephant and Castle, a street and neighbourhood south of the Thames, coming from Enfant de Castile. And these stories are so charming and entertaining that it would be a shame to have to say toodle-oo to them.

Ah, yes, toodle-oo. That’s another one said to come from French, specifically from à toute à l’heure. But it has a problem shared with Rotten Row and Elephant and Castle: a complete lack of any evidence, beyond similarity of sound, of a French source. And etymology by sound is not sound etymology, as linguists will tell you – it’s exceedingly easy to find sound coincidences with seemingly plausible related meanings. (Meanwhile, Ypres has not been renamed Wipers, but there is no reason to think the British soldiers did not say it as “wipers”; I got that from the horse’s mouth.)

Of course, if there were a single clear origin it would be easier to lay to rest forever the French origin theories. But one simply doesn’t always get a nice, easily traceable source. So, yes, your honour, it is possible that the accused had, without anyone knowing, become an expert marksman, and that he drove 500 miles in three hours without anyone noticing, let alone stopping him, and that he managed to get his wheelchair up three flights of stairs. After all, the victim was shot with a weapon of the same type as the accused had been seen looking at in a store two weeks ago, and was known to have bullied the accused in elementary school. And it is possible that these terms come from French.

But there are other possible origins that may be a bit less of a stretch. For instance, Elephant and Castle comes from an inn sign taken from the coat of arms of the Worshipful Company of Cutlers, which featured an elephant with a castle on its back. And there are several streets called Rotten Row in towns throughout England, and there are various more likely possibilities for its origin – route du roi has not been entirely discounted, but it is not convincing.

As to toodle-oo, we know that it showed up in the early 20th century, no later than 1907 – not a time when French influences were prone to appearing spontaneously in English discourse. Aside from the supposed French origin, which is discounted by researched etymological sources, there are two main ideas about its origins. One sees it as coming from tootle, which is a variant of toddle, as in toddle off – it means to walk with a tottering or waddling step, like a young child, or, more loosely, to amble; toddle off just means “go” with a somewhat leisurely tone to it. The other sees it as coming from toot, in imitation of a car horn; its occasional co-occurrence with pip-pip, which is also imitative of a car horn, supports this. (The merger of the two, tootle-pip, was invented much later, in the 1970s.)

If it sounds, at any rate, like the sort of thing P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster might have used, well, he was indeed an early user of it. The earliest use so far found comes from a 1907 issue of Punch magazine, which, as The Phrase Finder points out, employed P.G. Wodehouse at the time. Another early user was T.E. Lawrence (as in Lawrence of Arabia), who in 1908 wrote in a letter “Tootle ’oo.” It would seem it was a bit au courant with the smart set of the time. It remains in usage, as we know, but with a general taste of reference to the effete toffs of the legendary Wodehousian era. Toodle-oo has since then also been abbreviated to toodles, which is even more popular, if not quite as much a reference to another social milieu.

It’s a fun word, regardless. The oo and oo seem like the embouchure of a person making the /u/ sound, or perhaps the end of a flute on which one is playing something that sounds rather similar. The /dl/ in the middle adds to the musicality – it does show up in filler syllables in various traditions, from the lodle-lodle-lodle-lo of some shape note music to yodeling, and it seems imitative of twiddling keys – and has a certain frilly ornamentation to it, with the tongue cupping to the roof of the mouth and then pulling away from the sides, perhaps giving a reminiscence of the fringes on the canopy of an old horseless carriage in some form of frippery. You know, the sort of old car that had a bulb horn that might even go “toodle-oo” as the car and driver toddled off.

Thanks to C. Fletcher for suggesting toodle-oo.