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BOGUS WORDS

The history of Hinduism is hardly — let’s put this delicately — within my expertise. So I came late to Wendy Doniger and the row over her version of it, as published and now unpublished by Penguin India. Nor will I comment. But one verbal curiosity struck me: the words YOU NOTICEE with which those who raised legal objections to her book addressed Ms Doniger.

Noticee? Does it even exist, I wondered? Not in my largest dictionaries. But yes, it does. Googling revealed it — someone on whom a notice is served — as common in Indian law. American lawyers, ever keen to enlarge their domain, give it a wider sense: anyone, not only the victim, legally entitled to be told that a notice has been served. And English law, you guessed, is the origin of what I still see as a d*** silly word. Not as silly, though, as many recent concoctions ending in -ee. I don’t mean short words like tree or bee. Nor, say, like decree, which derives, via a French ending -et, from a Latin one -etum.

Nor yet those oddities borrowed, often quite recently, from less usual sources: banshee (an Irish fairy who wails in omen of death); corroboree (an Australian aboriginal dance); grandee (misspelt Spanish); jamboree (born as the French charivari, then 19th-century American slang for a drunken party); jubilee (via Christian Greek from the Hebrew for a ram’s horn, used as a trumpet); or kedgeree (a North Indian food modified, name and recipe, for British lips). If that list reads like a raree-show (guess), so be it. The words are rare but real.

Not so are scores of the -ee words I have in mind: ones whose -ee is a suffix stuck on some verb to represent the person to whom something is done (whether as the verb’s ‘direct’ object — trainee, for example —or ‘indirect’, such as referee); as against -er, the person who does it. In some such pairs, both words are genuine: employer/employee, say, or payer/payee. And these often have a respectable origin: the French for employer is employeur, and for employed is employé, which English, unused to accents, turned into employee.

English legalese, born of mediaeval French, has many such pairs. Non-lawyers know a few: lessor/lessee; mortgagor/-ee; and, on its own, trustee. But many are obscure: bailor/-ee; feoffor/-ee; garnisher/-ee. Usually, the -ee word is the ‘indirect’ object: you employ an employee, but you lease a house to a lessee. One or two of these French-born words raise difficulties of sex. To show it’s a woman, French adds an -e: employé becomes employée. So English has both fiancé, the man, and his fiancée, French-spelt (and spoken; they rhyme with say). But we often drop fiancée’s accent. As for divorcee, no accent and rhyming with see, it’s women-only — as of now, but till when?

French habits also make some words look odd. Shouldn’t escapee end in -er, not -ee? He did the escaping, didn’t he? True, but he comes from a French ‘reflexive’ verb: il s’est échappé, he ‘escaped-himself’. Likewise refugee. And patentee? No, and don’t blame French for this one: sure, he patents his invention, but by origin he was someone granted a patent. In contrast, why am I a pensioner, not pensionee? I don’t hand out pensions, I get one. But no: the source is Latin’s pensionarius, which can mean both.

There are many other oddities. Amputee reflects no ampute or amputer. No elected votee, no devoter for devotees, no truster, at least not who appoints trustees. And then there’s a host of fakes, with -ee glued to words that have no right to it (google Wiktionary for the daftest would-be serious word-list I’ve ever met). Some absurdities such as attendee and standee — where did bystanders go?— are widely used. I’ve met tutee. Live with lendee or vendee if you must. But pollee, tellee, truckee, vouchee or actionee? Some may be useful, bogus they all are. On this issue I’m an unashamed pedant. I shall be a crematee before even the least of this rubbish crosses my lips.