Q: I’m curious about the English suffix “-ee.” It looks as though it’s borrowed from French, but it’s much more flexible in English. When did English speakers start using this repurposed French form?
A: Yes, the “-ee” suffix in English is derived from French—or, more precisely, from Anglo-Norman, a mixture of medieval French dialects used in English law, commerce, education, and so on from roughly the 13th to the 15th century.
The suffix appeared at first in technical terms of law, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and “was originally an adaptation of the -é of certain Anglo-Norman past participles, which were used as nouns.”
The -é ending of these passive nouns became -ee as they were paired with the agent nouns, ending in -or, that acted upon them. So a complementary pair like apelor and apelé—for one who accuses and one who’s accused—became apelor (or apelour) and apelee in Anglo-Saxon legal language.
As the OED explains, “The existence in legal Anglo-Norman of pairs of correlative words seems to have led in the first place to the invention of words [ending] in -ee parallel to those agent-nouns in -or which had been adapted in legal use from Anglo-Norman.”
Later, the dictionary adds, “the terminations -or and -ee were freely added to English verb-stems to form nouns, those in -or denoting the agent, and those in -ee the passive party, in such transactions as are the object of legislative provision.”
“The derivatives in -ee, however, unlike the Anglo-Norman participial nouns after which they were modelled, have not usually a grammatically passive sense, but denote the ‘indirect object’ of the verbs from which they are derived,” the OED says. “Thus vendee is the person to whom a sale is made, indorsee the person in whose favour a draft, etc. is indorsed, lessee the person to whom property is let.”
Oxford notes a “still greater departure from the original function of the suffix” in a word like “payee,” which “denotes the person who is entitled to be paid, whether he be actually paid or not.”
“In a few cases,” the OED adds, “the suffix has been appended, not to a verb-stem in English or Anglo-Norman, but to a Latin participial stem etymologically related to an English noun, as in legatee, a person to whom a legacy has been bequeathed.”
The suffix “also appears in the English spelling of certain nouns adopted from modern French participial nouns in -é, as debauchee, refugee,” the dictionary says. And in some words, such as “bargee” and “devotee,” the suffix “is employed apparently arbitrarily.”
The linguist Otto Jespersen notes in Growth and Structure of the English Language (1912) that the use of the -ee suffix in Anglo-Norman law gradually extended to nouns formed from past participles that didn’t end in -é.
As an example, he cites “vendee,” derived from vendre (to sell), whose past participle is vendu, thus “vendee is the man to whom something is sold (l’homme à qui on a vendu quelque chose).” The parenthetical French is Jespersen’s.
“Now,” Jespersen writes, “these formations are no longer restricted to juridical language, and in general literature there is some disposition to turn this ending to account as a convenient manner of forming passive nouns.”
To indicate how far the usage has widened from legal language, he cites several literary examples, including such rarities as “staree” (one who’s stared at, Maria Edgeworth, 1801), “cursee” (one who’s cursed, Thomas Carlyle, 1829), and “gazee” (one who’s gazed at, Thomas De Quincey, 1853). The OED refers to these terms as humorous “nonce-words” (those used for the nonce—that is, for the moment).
As Jespersen points out, English is a very flexible language: “Such a word as trusteeship is eminently characteristic of the composite character of the language: Scandinavian trust + a French ending used in a manner unparalleled in French + an old English ending.”