From the NYT‘s Opinion pages on Sunday the 16th, “A Song for the Exonerated” by Francis X. Clines:

Having lost 16 years in prison on a wrongful conviction for rape and murder, Jeffrey Deskovic opted for the simple exuberance of karaoke to celebrate the master’s degree he earned late last month from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “I enjoyed singing ‘Live to Tell,’ ” he says of his graduation visit to a loud and friendly bar.

“Too many things, not enough time,” says Mr. Deskovic, an unusual 39-year-old member in the growing category of “exonerees” — a word he loves — who have lived to tell their tales of bungled evidence, forced confessions and the deus ex machina of DNA. He eventually won millions in damages after Westchester police and prosecutors were officially excoriated for a “tunnel vision” investigation that mismanaged exculpatory evidence.

The word is exoneree — not in the OED, NOAD3 or AHD5, but very much in the news in the U.S. thanks to the Innocence Project and similar efforts at exoneration via DNA.

Three more occurrences, all in headlines:

Exoneree faces ex-wife in compensation lawsuit (link)

Dallas exonerees see a bit of their own lives in Sundance Channel show ‘Rectify’ (link)

After Innocence: 27 Years In Prison, Exoneree Now Works To Free Others (link)

From Michael Quinion’s Affixes site on -ee:

Forming nouns from verbs.

[Anglo-Norman French or -ee, from Latin -atus (past participial ending).]

Words in -ee mark the passive recipient of an action, or a person affected in some way by the action of the verbs from which they have been formed: abductee, amputee, detainee, employee, inductee, internee, interviewee, licensee, nominee, patentee, trainee. In many cases, the active agent is marked by -er … or –or …, as in interviewer or abductor; such pairs are common in legal usage, in which the -or form is common: lessor/lessee, vendor/vendee. A committee was originally a person to whom some duty has been committed; it can still have the legal sense of a person entrusted with the charge of someone else’s property.

Some examples seem active rather than passive, and have been criticized for that reason: an absentee has actively absented him- or herself; an escapee has escaped, say from prison; a returnee has returned, perhaps from active military service oversees. However, several of these, especially escapee and returnee, have a useful nuance of an action completed rather than in process.

The suffix is active in the language, often being used to create words for a single use: apologee, embalmee, introducee, phonee, suggestee, vaccinee.

Exoneree is now well past single use.

One Response to “exoneree”

  1. Joseph F Foster Says:

    The -er /-ee system seems to me to be ergative, the –ee suffix deriving nouns not only from underlying direct (or indirect objects) but also from underlying intransitive subjects. You give some examples above, as for instance returnee ‘one who has returned’ and not *returner’. Another good one (not original with me but I can’t remember whom I got it from) is standee, ‘one who pays a lower ticket price and stands in standing room (no seats) areas at a sporting event’.

    Re the criticism of -ee when the underlying noun is intransitive subject, I can’t think of any minimal pairs where we have
    Verb – er for a person actively or by own fault or volition engaged in the activity versus the same verb Verb – ee ‘a person accidently or involuntarily visited with the action of the verb.
    We might for instance have **stander ‘one who is voluntarily stands’ v. standee one who is forced to stand. If we did, the system would be active rather than ergative. But English doesn’t seem to do that.

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