English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Does “attendee” bug you?

Q: I hate “attendee,” which I’ve heard for 30 years but see has been noticed since 1937. Not quite sure why I hate it so much, but just do.

A: Well, “attendee” is an odd bird. The “-ee” suffix in English often indicates someone on the receiving end—“payee,” “endorsee,” “lessee,” “legatee,” and so on.

But the suffix sometimes plays a more active role, as in words like “devotee,” “debauchee,” “refugee,” etc. And it’s sometimes used in jest—the victim of a “jokester” may be referred to as a “jokee.”

You may find it annoying, but  we can’t think of a better term than “attendee” for someone who attends a meeting, conference, or other event: “attender”? “attendant”? Nah!

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) cites 1937 as the “first known use of attendee,” but we’ve found quite a few earlier examples of the usage.

For example, the January 1914 diary of the business fraternity Alpha Kappa Psi includes an announcement by its NYU chapter for a dinner dance on Feb. 11:

“The dance is being held on the eve of a holiday, namely, Lincoln’s Birthday. This is an excellent arrangement and permits of the attendees resting late next morn and reviving their tired spirits.”

M-W Collegiate defines “attendee” as “a person who is present on a given occasion or at a given place (attendees at a convention).”

Interestingly, the earliest example of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary is a 1961 citation from the granddaddy of M-W dictionaries, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged.

But we’ll skip to the next (and far more entertaining) example, from The Swinging Set (1967), by William Breedlove and Jerrye Breedlove: “The only attendees who bother with clothes.”

The OED says the usage originated in the US and is chiefly American. However, a third of the dictionary’s citations are from British sources, including this one from the April 3, 1980, issue of the Financial Times:

“Some attendees view this flexibility as an opportunity to negotiate favourable terms.”

You may hate the word “attendee,” but you’ll have a hard time avoiding it. We got over four million hits when we googled it. Unless a better word comes along, you’re stuck with it.

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