–Ee, –Or

Not the donkey from Winnie the Pooh, but a pair of word endings.

First, –ee.
As in trustee, lessee, mortgagee, bailee, drawee, payee, attendee, mentee and the like.

This ending is common in law, often indicating the indirect object of some action. For example, the person to whom property is entrusted (trustee) or leased (lessee), the person to whom a mortgage is given (mortgagee).

It can also be the direct object of an action: for example, the person you employ (employee) or train (trainee).

So far, so good. But let’s not go crazy. Tippee (person in receipt of an (illegal) stock tip) is well-established, but not really necessary: one could as easily say the tipped or the recipient of a tip.

Worse are attendee, invitee, coachee and mentee. The first is illogical in relation to trustee or employee; the person who goes to something attends it, not is attended. Why not just say guest or participant? Invitee passes the logic test, but it’s rather ugly; here again, guest is preferable. Coachee is unlovely. Refugee, yes – but as for asylee, ugh.

Mentee is the one that really gets your humble scribe’s goat, however. It assumes that the word mentor, from which it is derived, comes from a verb in the way that other –ee words do.

Not so! Mentor is the name of the chap (but really the goddess Athena in disguise) who, in Greek mythology, tutored the young Telemachus while his dad went off to besiege Troy and then sail around the eastern Mediterranean. Mentee assumes that a mentor is someone who ments, but that isn’t a word at all, and certainly isn’t the root of either Mentor or mentor.

Admittedly, the alternatives for mentee aren’t great. I sometimes hear protégé(e), but that sounds at once pretentious and faintly creepy. How about just student, associate or junior?

Now, –or.
Lawyers like this one too: mortgagor, settlor, advisor. In non-lawyer English, -er is just as frequent, and sometimes one can use both (payer, payor). Adviser is perfectly correct (and actually the term of art used in Canadian securities legislation). Sometimes only the –er form is possible (employer).

One thing that has always puzzled me (OK, I may have time on my hands) is the difference in pronunciation between mortgagor and obligor. Under the normal rules of English pronunciation, those Gs before the Os should both be hard (as in gore). But it’s OB-li-gore (hard G) and MOR-gaj-or (soft G). In the US, the emphasis is more usually on the final syllable: mor-gaj-OR and ob-li-GORE but still those inconsistent Gs.

There are, in fact, the older but now less common variants obligeor and mortgager. They have the same legal meanings as their –or equivalents; an obligeor is also ‘a person who performs a service or kindness’. Pronounced MOR-gaj-er and o-BLIGE-er.

Now you know.

Next up: confusing pairs, part 3

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


  1. I’m with you on the “mentee” – drives me crazy that people are too lazy to use a dictionary and instead invent words.

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