Saturday, August 4, 2012

-er v. -or

A friend pointed out an interesting English quirk to me the other day: Why is a prisoner in prison but a jailer runs the jail?

The answer lies in the suffix, -er, which derives from a Proto-Germanic suffix -ărjo-z, which was added to nouns and meant "a person who has do to with [noun]." Originally the main purpose of this construction was to denote a persons job - a jailer work for a jail. In Modern English the meaning expanded to also denote something a person does that is not necessarily their profession - a runner runs, but it's probably not their day job. The definition further evolved into something like "a native or inhabitant of," which is where we get New Yorker or southerner - and prisoner.

As a side note, there is an obsolete definition of prisoner that meant "person who runs the prison."

1 comment:

  1. Its interesting that 'er' means 'a person who has to do with a noun'. I thought about the word sail, if you add 'er' to make sailer it actually means 'a boat of specified power or qualities'. You have to add 'or' to the word sail to make it a doer (sailor). So does this mean that the definition for 'er' has some exceptions?