Mea Culpa: Attendees, escapees and Anglo-Norman French

Should it be ‘attendee’ or ‘attender’? And what about ‘iconic’ – is that ever acceptable in The Independent?

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Angela Merkel was booed and jeered by protesters at celebrations for German Unity Day in Dresden, we reported on Tuesday. “Demonstrators held placards which said ‘Merkel must go’, while shouting the slogan at the German Chancellor and President Joachim Gauck as they greeted attendees.”

I have been asked by a reader to ban the word “attendee”, on the grounds that it should be “attender”.

It is true that there are several pairs of words in English that use these endings to distinguish between someone who does something and someone who has something done to them: employer, employee; donor, donee; lessor, lessee; nominator, nominee. 

However, English is more complicated than that. I am grateful to Kate Wild and Inge Milfull at the Oxford Dictionaries for an article on the origin of these endings. They are borrowed from Anglo-Norman French, which was the legal language of England until 1362. 

The complication is that, as they point out, other words were also borrowed from French that did not fit this pattern. Refugee, a noun meaning “someone who has fled”, was borrowed from refugié, an intransitive verb meaning “having fled”. This became the model for further similar formations, such as “escapee”, when “escaper” would be just as good, and “retiree”, which may be why we prefer “pensioner” in the UK.

At this point it is probably best just to tiptoe away and leave the linguists to it. But back to the original complaint. “Attendee” may not be wrong, but it is an ugly word and should be avoided anyway. I don’t think “attender” is any better. In this case, we could have dodged it by writing “ they greeted people”.

Iconoclasm: Now that I have been re-educated by my friend Oliver Kamm, the author of Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English, I take an indulgent view of many supposed crimes against usage. But the use of “iconic” to mean “famous” still bothers me. 

Bernard Theobald wrote to point out an example that not even the most easy-going pedant could tolerate. In a report on Tuesday about two Turkish air force pilots in jail, we said that they were accused of having taken part, during the attempted coup in July, in the bombing of the parliament in Ankara – one of the most iconic acts of the turbulent night”. 

The strafing of the parliament building was one of the more memorable events of the coup. But iconic? In what way could aerial bombardment by jets be like a devotional painting? Enough is enough.