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Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Fightors and visiters

Why not a fightor?

Two Wordlady fans have coincidentally written with questions about -or and -er endings.

-er vs -or: why are visitors and fighters spelled with different endings. Is there a rule?
These two suffixes are called "agent suffixes", creating what are known as "agent nouns". It makes them sound like they work for the FBI: "Agent Noun, please meet Agent Suffix".  But they allow us to designate a person or thing that performs the action of the verb.

As usual with situations where we have two ways of doing things, the fault lies with the hybrid nature of English: partly Germanic from the Anglo-Saxons and partly Latin from the Norman French and from Latin itself.

The easy answer is this:

-er endings, which are Anglo-Saxon in origin, go with verbs that are originally Anglo-Saxon:
fight > fighter, in this example.

-or endings, which are Latin in origin, go with verbs that are originally Latin, some of which came into English by way of French:
visit > visitor, in this example.

Voila! A rule. Easy peasy. Well, that is, if you know off the top of your head whether the root verb is Anglo-Saxon or Latin. Otherwise, as with so much to do with English spelling, you just have to memorize, or check a dictionary. This must be particularly annoying for Francophones, for whom "-eur" covers both -or and -er territory for most words.

This "rule" works for many words, perhaps especially for the -or words.


A rule. Ahahahahaha. This is English after all. We must have many exceptions!

The unfortunate OED lexicographer who was gifted with the task of writing the entry for "-er" had this to say (probably while thinking, "I'm throwing in the towel; let's go to the pub!"):

In received spelling, the choice between the two forms [-er and -or] is often capricious, or determined by other than historical reasons.
Thus we have some Norman French agent nouns originally ending in -our which evolved into -er endings, among them:

interpreter came from interpretour < late Latin interpretātōr and was "interpretor" until the late 1500s when it became "interpreter".

barber (such a good word!) started off as Anglo-Norman barbour, from Old French barbeor < Latin barbātōr, and should have become "barbor", but evolved into "barber" by the end of the 1500s. The older form survives in the (especially Scottish) surname Barbour.

And then there were many nouns that had -er or -ier endings in Middle French, for instance

treasurer, gardener, customer, and many others.

And with many other words the -er ending just won out in English, despite the root verb being Latin.

The opposite also happened, though less frequently.

"Sailor" is derived from an Anglo-Saxon verb and was in fact originally "sailer", but "sailor" took over at the beginning of the 19th century. This was partly on the analogy of "tailor", which originally was Latin tāliātōr, and partly to make a distinction between professional sailors and amateur sailers. Nowadays, "sailer" only survives as a description of a kind of boat: A fast sailer such as Constitution could make as much as 14 knots under sail.

There are some nouns where we haven't made up our minds yet, or are changing our minds, for instance:

conjuror / conjurer
According to the "rule", this should be "conjuror" (< Latin conjūrātor). But in spite of "conjuror" being the first form given in Oxford dictionaries, "conjurer", which has been around since we borrowed the word in  the 1300s, is actually somewhat more common, especially in the US, where it is the form given first by Merriam-Webster.

impostor / imposter
This came from French imposteur < late Latin impostor < impōnĕre to impose. "Impostor" and "imposter" co-existed from the 1600s, when the word entered English, but dictionaries came to favour "impostor", as being the original Latin form. However, this has not defeated "imposter" at all, and the two are in a neck-and-neck race as to which is used more frequently. In the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, we took the leap and listed "imposter" as the headword with "impostor" as the variant. I seem to remember getting at least one angry letter about that. But, to use the technical lexicographic term, "impostor" just looks weird to me. (Fear not, "looks weird" was not a criterion we used in establishing spellings).

adaptor / adapter
Both (on a Latin base) entered English in the mid-1700s, but "adapter" has been consistently more common, and is listed by most dictionaries first. An exception to this is the Australian and New Zealand Oxford Dictionaries, which list "adaptor" first.  This is a bit puzzling because Antipodean corpus evidence suggests "adapter" is more common. The lexicographers, however, almost certainly had their own data and their own reasons, and I'm sure "looks weird" wasn't one of them.

advisor / adviser
My other correspondent inquires:
When did “advisor” become “adviser”? It seemed to occur overnight and no one told me when the vote was.
"Advise" is a French word derived from Latin, so you might expect it to take the -or ending only. But in fact the noun has had an -er ending since it first appeared about 1536, earlier than the -or variant, which dates from about 50 years later. "Adviser" has been by far the more common spelling over the centuries, and it is only since about 1900 that "advisor" has crept up towards it, I suspect under the influence of "supervisor" or even "visor", but more likely "advisory". (Please don't ask me why some words are -ory and others are -ary!!)  All dictionaries give "adviser" as the more common form, so I'm intrigued to know where this correspondent learned that "advisor" was the original and "adviser" was an upstart.

In 2017 the CBC reported this bizarre information:

There's a difference between a financial adviser and a financial advisor: "Advisers" are regulated and have a legal responsibility to act in your best interest. "Advisors" are … not the same.

So, be careful: Banks may call them "advisors" so a salesperson sounds impressive, but you could be stuck without protection.

The Ontario Securities Commission confirms that "adviser" is a legal term under securities law that describes a person or company that is registered to give advice about securities, whereas "advisor" is not.
This seems to me ridiculous, because we are just talking about a spelling variant. It's like saying that a labour negotiator doesn't have the same standing if you call them a labor negotiator instead.

Which of these variants do you use? Does "impostor" look weird to you? Or will you defend it to your dying day?

We're not quite done with our agent suffixes. Just to be annoying, there are also liar and beggar, where the spelling -ar is a survival of the occasional Middle English variant -ar(e. "Beggar" was in fact spelled more frequently "begger" until the end of the 17th century, at which point, for reasons unknown, "beggar" took over.

My original correspondents may have thought this was an easy question. Ha! But you've borne with me (I hope) through this lengthy and complicated discussion. Suffixes! How exciting is that!!! It beggars* belief. Or beggers it. Whatever.
(*Yet another one of those noun-verb conversions that we don't bat an eye at.)
For more about agent nouns (because it's such an exciting topic!), see this post: https://katherinebarber.blogspot.com/2019/06/when-your-surname-is-your-destiny.html
Photo by Samuel Penn on Unsplash


  1. To inquire about a word frequently seen recently,
    what are your thoughts about "protester" vs. "protestor"?

    1. although protestor is about 50 years older than protester, the latter is by far more common and the first spelling given in all dictionaries.

  2. There are also verbs and nouns that are the same. I know nurses who nurse and doctors who doctor, police who police and then I run into some new words. I have an aspiring paramedic (I think this is a relatively new word)in the household, but I also think of therapist, dentist and chiropractor. What would the verb for these people who take also take action? It mostly seems to be "to provide" followed by "aid".

  3. Can the great K. Barber please learn how to typeset real quotation marks, and also learn what a nonbreaking hyphen is so that she can typeset lexemes that begin or end with hyphens without risking unwanted linebreaks?


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.