Reader, Writer, Arithmeticker

The 3/24 One Big Happy, in which Ruthie’s brother Joe (rebelling against school, after his discovery of appalling “chapter books” — all words, no pictures!) goes on a spree of –er words:

The extremely versatile N-forming derivational suffix –er, with N bases like arithmetic and V bases like read (including, in the last panel, the problematic base tidy up, a V of the form V + Prt)

The Three R’s.  From OED3 (June 2008; latest version published online March 2021) on the noun R:

I. The letter R (r). … 3.  the three R’s: reading, (w)riting, and (a)rithmetic, regarded as the fundamentals of education. Also in extended use, with reference to watchwords, key concepts, etc., in other spheres. [The phrase is said to have originated in a toast proposed c1807 by the English banker and politician Sir William Curtis (1752–1829).] [AZ: 1st cite 1825, referring explicitly to Curtis; from the beginning, cites are from both American and British sources]

N-deriving –er. This derivational suffix is notably multifunctional, right up there with the suffixes –ize and –ist that I’ve looked at in postings on this blog. There are a number of regular formations with specific semantics and then there are gigantic grabbags of examples, pretty much glossable only as ‘N associated with Nbase / Ving‘, with a separate association for each base-derivative pair.

(Separately, there is the –er forming the comparative degree in adjectives and adverbs; and the –er of (often onomatopoetic) frequentative verbs like clatter, flutter, twitter, flicker, shimmer, etc. These are irrelevant here.)

(Also irrelevant are a fairly large number of nouns in –er whose connection to a V or N base is now opaque and “merely historical”: dinner, supper, lavender, grocer, mariner, misnomer, for instance.)

Patterns of some generality include the following:

— from OED3:

A special use of the suffix … is its addition to names of places or countries to express the sense ‘a native of’, ‘a resident in’, e.g. LondonerNew YorkerIcelander. With similar notion, derivatives in -er have been formed upon certain English adjectives indicating place of origin or residence, as foreignernorthernersoutherner.

Human derivatives from place-denoting bases: proper-N bases and Adj bases (above), and in fact at least some common-N bases: e.g., derivatives outsider, villager, cottager ‘someone who lives in a cottage’.

It’s not clear to me how productive these patterns are.

— suffixed to (action) Vs quite generally to yield agent Ns (often using the –or variant): singer, governor

— similarly, quite generally, to yield instrument nouns, like poker, roller, washer, dryer, roaster

— from OED3:

used to form nouns serving as adaptations of Latin types in -logus, -graphus [like astrologer, astronomer, biographer, geographer]

— from OED3:

Introduced from Rugby School into Oxford University slang, originally at University College, in Michaelmas Term, 1875; used to make jocular formations on nouns, by clipping or curtailing them and adding -er to the remaining part, which is sometimes itself distorted [like footer < football, rugger < Rugby (football), brekkerbreakfastbedder < bed-sitter, many more]

Among the earliest –er Ns (some with variant forms) with N bases denoted profession or occupation: hatter, (variant –yer) lawyer, (variant –ier) clothier. The pattern is not productive in modern English.

Then from OED3:

With these may be compared a class of words chiefly belonging to modern colloquial language, and denoting things or actions [some OED examples: header (with a great many senses), back-hander (‘blow with the back of the hand’, ‘backhand stroke in a game’, (British) ‘a secret payment, typically illegal’), fiver ‘five-pound bank note’, three-decker (‘three-layer sandwich’, ‘three-floor building’, ‘sailing ship with three gun decks’, no doubt more)

This is the great grab-bag, with a separate story for each lexical item. Two more N-base examples, both with sexual content:

— from OED3: nooner ‘alcoholic drink taken in the middle of the day’, ‘an instance of sexual activity taking place during the day’, (generalized) ‘any event that occurs in the middle of the day; any activity engaged in at (or around) midday’

— British sexual slang from several sources: cottager = (UK gay) cottage queen ((US gay) t-room / tearoom queen) ‘man who frequents public restrooms to engage other men for sex’ (cf. the sense of cottager above)

There are also V-base examples in this set, e.g. object Ns with chicken-cooking senses: fryer ‘chicken for frying’, roaster ‘chicken for roasting’, etc.

And now, back to the OBH strip …

Agentive Ns based on phrasal Vs. Like the V + Prt base tidy up in the strip. There are three well-attested patterns; based on pick up: picker-up, pick-upper, picker-upper.

From my 8/25/13 posting “Breaking up is hard to do”:

There’s a fair amount of literature on agentive Ns based on V + Prt combinations. These would normally be expected to have agentive -er on the head of the combination, the V: breaker-up. This is an internal agentive, parallel to internal inflection, as in tickings off, the plural of the N ticking off. The alternative is to treat the V + Prt combination as a unit and suffix the -er to the whole thing, so that it ends up attached to the Prt: break-upper. That’s an external agentive, parallel to external inflection, as in the plural ticking offs.

In fact, most people find both breaker-up and break-upper awkward, and the alternative ordering up-breaker (like bystander) no better, so they opt for a double agentivebreaker-upper (parallel to the doubly inflected tickings offs). (On internal, external, and double inflection, see this posting.)

What we see in the last panel of the OBH strip is an external agentive, but with a duplicated suffixer: tidy-uperer. In the case of the plural inflectional suffix, we see the suffix sometimes duplicated even for simplex bases: plural handses, for example. Similarly for the comparative -er: biggerer. I suspect that agentive –er is sometimes duplicated (by adult native speakers, on purpose) in, for example, killerer, but I haven’t searched carefully for such examples.

In English, intentionally duplicated suffixes are often emphatic or intensive in affect — as is certainly the case for Joe’s tidy-uperer in the OBH strip.

4 Responses to “Reader, Writer, Arithmeticker”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    bedder < bed-sitter as an example of “Oxford University slang” reminded me of a couple of examples from early-20th-century English literature that seem to suggest something slightly different.

    I’m assuming bed-sitter is used here in what I take to be common British usage for a combination bedroom and “sitting room” (more or less equivalent to US “living room”). But in E. M. Forster’s The Longest Journey, the early chapters of which are set at Cambridge University, the term bedder is used to refer to a member of the housekeeping staff (whose job would presumably include the making of students’ beds).

    Further, if I am to trust Dorothy Sayers in Gaudy Night, such college servants were called “scouts” at Oxford at roughly the same period (well, a few decades later, but I would expect such terminology to persist over a fairly long period).

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    First, bed-sitter. From NOAD:

    noun bedsit (also bedsitter or bed-sitting room): British a one-room apartment typically consisting of a combined bedroom and sitting room with cooking facilities.

    Second, words like bedder are coined again and again, with different senses in different contexts. The fact that Forster reports the word as Cambridge terminology for ‘bed-maker, housekeeper, (BrE) (college) scout’ in his day in no way casts doubt on the OED’s report (in its 6th entry for the suffix -er) that it’s attested as Oxford slang for ‘bed-sitter’. (The OED gives six other senses for bedder, in three separate entries.)

    As for Sayers’s Oxford scout, well, Oxford is not Cambridge (as Oxonians and Cantabrigians will explain to you at length), and in any case college slang often involves multiple terms for the same referent at a single place and time, and is also famous for being changeable over time. This is a context of high variability.

    The larger point is that there’s no discordance between these various reports of college slang, entertaining though they are.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      But (as with slang in general) some college slang persists over long periods, serving as markers of local identity. As it happens, scout (at Oxford but not Cambridge) is one such item. OED’s 6th entry for scout says:

      At Oxford (also at Yale and Harvard): A college servant.

      with Oxford quotes from 1708 through 1972 (and no Cambridge quotes).

      • Robert Coren Says:

        I did not mean to imply that the use of different terms at Oxford and Cambridge was in any way surprising. On rereading, I see that I could just as well have omitted the final paragraph of my original comment.

        It came as a slight surprise to me that scout for “college servant” was also current at Harvard. It was not when I was an undergraduate (1964-68), but then again there really wasn’t such a thing by that time.

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