Lawyer seems like quite an interesting word. It has the agent noun ending –er, as in teacher and footballer, and the Old English root law*. Look closely: what the hell is the –y– doing in there? Surely the word should be *lawer (although I find this quite hard to say). As it happens, the ending isn’t –er at all, but rather –yer. Whereas –er is the Germanic and homegrown form, –yer comes from French, ultimately Latin. (In most words it is actually –ier, but after a vowel or w it becomes –yer.)
Why add a French ending to an English root when we already have a perfectly acceptable form in –er? Simply put: 1066 and all that. A massive inflow of French words in –ier/yer followed. When you start looking, lawyer isn’t alone; there are loads of examples.
glazier (glaze + ier, from glass)
In many cases, one can simply swap out –ier/yer for –er (note: these are real, attested words):
But in many cases, alternative formations just feel better:
bowman, bowmaker (the latter is the attested original form)
lawman (an attested word for lawyer)
grenademan (not attested, so far as I can tell, but for me it doesn’t raise any eyebrows as a nonce word)
Some words are somewhat harder to find an obvious form for, however, for example terrier. We could be creative here; terrier is from the root terre, meaning ‘earth’, as terriers pursue their prey (badgers, foxes) into their burrows, into the very earth. Quite literally, therefore, terrier means ‘earth-dog’. I see no reason why we couldn’t use ‘earth-dog’ instead of terrier. However, this strays into the realms of making words up. And whilst I see a very real place for making words up, so long as they fit a Saxon English model, I always like it more when we use extant English words instead. Why? Because the words are tried and tested and more likely to be taken up and less likely to be perceived as outlandish or outrageous. And as you can see, many of the above -ier/yer forms have extant English forms.
*law is Old English, albeit borrowed ultimately from Old Norse, another Germanic language
© 2016 Bryan A. J. Parry
featured image from http://tvnewfrontier.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/lawman-1961.html