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…

One response to “escapee

  1. We may note that in general, anything -ee is actually anyone -ee: it’s applied to animates or sentients and in particular to humans. To call a jail that has been broken out of an escapee would seem exceedingly odd to most people, I’d venture to say. So there’s no real risk of misunderstanding.

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