Lawman comic1-300

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’ter 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)
hotel owner

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

6 Responses to -yer

  1. Tristan Laguz says:

    But isn’t -er from Latin as well, namely from -arius? Isn’t -a the truly English doa-afterfastening (agent-suffix)? After all, we have OE “giefa” and “wita”, for byspel, not “giefer” and “witer”, right?

    • bryanajparry says:

      Hi Tristan. No, that is a minority opinion; the majority of scholarship contends that -er comes from Proto-Germanic.

      • Tristan Laguz says:

        That would be great! But even if it comes from Ortheedish, that could still come from Latin, couldn’t it? Wiktionary gives both see-so’s: that the Ortheedish -arjaz comes from Latin -arius, and that it is homeborn Theedish. But of course I’m not a wita; I can only take what witas say, and if thou believest that it’s cleanly/purely Theedish, I’d happily learn that. 😃
        But regardless of that, we could brook -er and -a broadly, and -io narrowlier for Men whose ‘job’ in a broad sinn is doing the deed meant by the deedword, and -il and -thor/-dor for tools and rigs that do said deed, right? For instance, “reckonio” means someone who is wont to reckon, whereas “reckonil” and “reckonthor” refer to a tool for reckoning or a rig that reckons, for byspel a computer or calculator. We’ll still have to choose the narrowkiry meanings; at this time, I brook “reckonil” in the same sinn as “computer”.

      • bryanajparry says:

        Hello. Proto-Germanic does not come from Latin; they were cousins. So if -er is Proto-Germanic, which it almost surely is, then it is, as it were, a homeborn wordbit. As you seem to be touching on, -er is somewhat overworked in its current uses. Nonetheless, I am not much for bringing back/in wordbits such as -il or -thor, although I have written on the former’s potential in its modern form -le/-el.

      • Tristan Laguz says:

        Hi Bryan,
        I’m happy that we can keep -er. Regarding -il, I find -el fully fine and deem is a bit better than -le since the latter is also a shape of -ol, which has another meaning: tilting to do the deed meant by the deedword to which it’s fastened.

      • bryanajparry says:

        There has indeed been much confusion over English wordbits. Take “for-” and “fore-“, which have become muddled in the minds of many, or “be-” which is a useful prefix but laden with many meanings indeed,

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