The Grammarphobia Blog

Get thee to a carwashery

Q: On a jaunt through western Maryland, we passed a billboard for The Horsery. We’d never seen the word “horsery” before, but we instantly understood what it meant—a tack shop. The same can be said about the “Hair Cuttery” chain. So – our question to the Grammar Mavens is: What’s up with “-ery”? And no jiggery-pokery.

A: The suffix “-ery,” which is used to form nouns, first showed up in the Middle English period (originally spelled “-erie”) in words that were adopted from French.

Since then, the suffix has taken on a life of its own and has been used extensively to make new English nouns.

In fact, words with this ending are so numerous and varied that we’ll have to simplify our etymology a bit. That’s because the suffix “-ery” doesn’t have a single function in English—it has many.

First, it might be helpful to back up and look at how this ending was used in French.

As the Oxford English Dictionary says, many French nouns ending in -ier or -er designate a person engaged in some occupation, like drapier (a draper, or dealer in cloth).

And words derived from these but with -erie endings sometimes designate the class of goods those people deal in, like draperie (drapery).

In other cases the -erie ending designates an employment or art, like archerie (archery), from archer (an archer). And sometimes it designates a place of business, like boulangerie (bakery), from boulanger (a baker).

Still other French nouns were formed by adding -erie to verbs.

The resulting nouns might mean an action, like braverie (braving), from braver (to brave); or an occupation, like confiserie (confectioner’s business), from confire (to preserve fruits, etc.); or a place of business, like brasserie (brewery), from brasser (to brew).

All these same patterns, and more, were transferred to English. But in English, as in French, the patterns don’t always result in neat triplets like “bake,” “baker,” and “bakery.”

For example, the “-ery” in “nunnery” adds the sense of a residence or community—a place where nuns live. The same is true for “rookery”—a place where rooks (crows) live.

Often, “-ery” designates “the place where an employment is carried on, as bakery, brewery, fishery, pottery,” the OED says.

And occasionally, it designates “classes of goods, as confectionery, ironmongery, pottery.

By analogy, the OED adds, sometimes the suffix adds the sense of “-ware,” “-stuff,” or the like, “as in crockery, machinery, scenery.”

Such nouns, Oxford says, ”sometimes (though rarely) signify a state or condition, as slavery.”

But more often “the force of the suffix is ‘that which is characteristic of, all that is connected,’ in most cases with contemptuous implication, as in knavery, monkery, popery.”

In yet other English nouns, the “-ery” ending denotes a “place where certain animals are kept or certain plants cultivated, as piggery, rookery, swannery, vinery.”

And the OED says that in modern usage, particularly in the US, the example of “bakery” has been extended to form such words as “beanery, bootery, boozery, breadery, cakery, carwashery, drillery, drinkery, eatery, hashery, lunchery, mendery, toggery, wiggery.”

And now, apparently, we can add “horsery” to the list!

As for “jiggery-pokery,” that’s a late-19th-century colloquialism meaning, more or less, humbug.

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