Daily Archives: February 26, 2014


Imagine speech as a continuous stream of variegated colours flowing past uninterrupted, one sound into another. Now imagine written (or printed) language as a bunch of pieces of fabric of individual colours sewn together in an attempt to approximate the flow of colour that you hear from the spoken.

Yes, the written word is a quilt, a fabric mosaic approximation of reality sewn together from bits. And you are the sewer.

Or should I say the sewist.

Sewist? That’s not a word you will find in a dictionary. No, for a long time the standard agentive suffix for deriving nouns from verbs was er: doer, thinker, walker, worker… a joke my brother came up with is that since I live, and I am (infinitive be), I must be a liver and a beer. But this derivation becomes a problem with someone who sews.

The issue is that the verb spelled sew represents a word now said /so/. This is illustrated by the pun sew-and-sew referring to someone who sews (it only works if you know the derogatory epithet so-and-so). So what would be written soer (itself a little problematic) if the word were spelled so (obviously also an ambiguity risk) is instead spelled sewer, which happens to be the same as the word for a cloaca. An underground gutter. An artificial watercourse for drainage.

So aren’t we lucky that the suffix ist has become a fadfix? It’s the hot new agentive! Word quilters take note: no need to have those bland er panels when you can add a bit of spice with ist. And, in some cases, avoid an unpleasant ambiguity.

Because really, why have two words spelled the same way that have different sounds and meanings, especially if one of them refers to something unpleasant? And especially if you could use a different form for one of them?

We can’t use a different form for sewer meaning artificial water channel; it’s not formed with sew plus er – in fact, it’s a digested-and-excreted form related to Latin exaquatorium. But sew plus er meaning ‘someone who sews’? Why not use something clearer?

Sewist is, in fact, as Jim Taylor has told me, a current term in the world of sewing. It’s a new twist, a bit of a swizzle in the drink. It may annoy those people who prefer the old established forms, problematic though they may be. Such people tend to cover for their mental inflexibility with invective against the intellects of the more practical and forward-thinking people who would dare pour troublesome old forms in the sewer.

Think of sewist as a new patch on a problem, a deft bit of sewing that takes a little different fabric to sew a new representation together. Expect to see it in dictionaries before too long; eventually it will be the standard term, simply for better communication. Which is, after all, what language is really for. Not just needling.