A headline from today's newspaper, "U.S. drops 'enemy combatant' label; detainees remain," made me curious about the suffixes in "combatant" and "detainee." The meanings of the suffixes play essential roles in the meanings of the words created.
Both suffixes -ant and -ee are added to verbs to form nouns and to show a relationship. Both -ee and -ant originated in French. A look at their meanings helps us understand our different perceptions between a "combatant" and a "detainee."
The suffix -ee, Random House's Webster's College Dictionary says, denotes "a person who is the object or beneficiary of the act specified by the verb." The dictionary goes on to note that the suffix now also marks the performer of an act, and cites "escapee" and "attendee." A "detainee" is one who is detained. The person becomes the object of a transitive verb.
The suffix -ant, on the other hand, denotes someone who performs a role, and the dictionary cites "applicant" and "contestant." A person who carries a label ending in -ant is an active performer; a person who carries a label ending in -ee is being acted upon -- most of the time. A "detainee" can become an "escapee" and change his status and the way we perceive him.
Bryan A. Garner in his usage guide writes that the sense of -ee is "inherently passive." But "it's an especially active suffix; that is, people are continually creating neologisms with it."Garner goes on to warn writers not to use "escapee" and "attendee," among others, and to use the suffixes -or, -er and -ist for active senses. The Associated Press Stylebook used to recommend "escaped convict" or "fugitive" as alternatives for "escapee," but the entry was dropped in the 2001 edition.
Beyond the suffixes, these words have interesting meanings. A "detainee" is a person held in custody, especially for a political offense or for questioning, Random House's dictionary says. The word's origin is dated 1925-30. A "combatant" is a person engaged in active combat. The dictionary dates it to 1425-75.