or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, November 25, 2010


The suffix "-er" has multiple uses in English. Probably the commonest in everyday use is to form the comparative from most one- and two-syllable adjectives: ugly/uglier, sane/saner. Another common example is as what's called an agentive suffix, one which turns a verb (usually) into the thing that performs that action: kill/killer, bake/baker. (It also appears in such nouns as "commoner", from the adjective "common".) There's also the frequentative "-er", which is, as linguists say, "no longer productive", which means we don't make words any more in this form, though many frequentatives still exist: "flicker" from "flick" and "patter" from "pat", for instance. And of course sometimes the letters "-er" just appear at the end of a word thanks to its etymology and not as a suffix: "canter", for instance, which looks like it ought to be a frequentative but is actually a contraction of "Canterbury gallop", and "slaughter", from Old Norse "slahtr".

Sometimes we have a collision between these various endings with their various meanings, and that can lead to a little bit of confusion, or at least a momentary pause. Here's a sentence from the A.V. Club review of Burlesque:

It’s a glittering neon valentine to divadom so exquisitely, unapologetically gay that Alan Cumming’s homage to Joel Grey in Cabaret actually constitutes one of its butcher elements.

Nothing wrong with that at all, and "butcher" is the most obvious comparative form of "butch" (although "more butch" is perfectly acceptable). But didn't it give you pause to read it? Didn't it maybe just a little bit make you think of Alan Cumming in a bloody apron wielding a carving knife?

Here's the funny thing: "butch", in the sense of "tough and masculine", is apparently a contraction of "butcher". How about that!

"Butcher", by the way, is, if you know any French, obviously derived from or otherwise related to "boucher", which--and this is the less-obvious part--is related to English "buck", which now means "male deer" but once meant "male goat".


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