Word Question of the Day
March 12, 2007
For those of you wondering whether the Word of the Day (again, take “day” liberally) could get any more pedantic….have no fear! Today your dreams have been answered! Although that depends on your definition of “answer,” as nothing in fact will be answered today.
Allow me to explain. Normally the Word columns are based on the OED, probably the best English language dictionary, the AHD, the canonical dictionary of American English, Webster’s, the grandaddy of American, and urbandictionary, for want of a better slang dictionary. All of these dictionaries are descriptive; they define language as it is, not as it ought to be. The finest prescriptive dictionary is probably Fowler’s Modern English Usage (how unbelievably nefarious of the French to best us at our own language). Fowler’s is a great reference for suffixes and prefixes, something the OED is not. I’m always upset at the number of websites that give themselves a title using the -ist noun ending, and decided to investigate the options. Although -ist words have always been common, every non-Gawker media noun named blog seems to use -ist (gothamist, chicagoist, sartorialist, et. al). Whither “-er”?
Fowler claims that -ist nouns are most correctly derived from verbs ending in “ize” or sometimes “ise.” In fact, he goes on quite a tyrannical tirade about the word “pacifist.” “Pacifist” is derived from the adjective “pacific” and should therefore be styled pacificist. As Fowler notes, there is no noun form Pacify to render “pacifize” and thus pacifist. In his words, this common shift is “no better than to change deteriorate and authoritative, as is often done by the uneducated, to deteriate and authoritive, and to acquiesce in such corruptions at a time when general education is equal to realizing their nature is to introduce a principle of swift decay into the language.” Wow! Probably the harshest words ever uttered in a dictionary.
Anyway, Fowler also notes that the word “analyst” is the result of confusing “analyse” for an -ize/-ise verb; we should expect “analyser.” But Fowler does not explain why advertise (-ise) gives advertiser and not advertisist, a noun for which the OED, surprisingly, records no mention.
Any guesses? I have a theory that I’d be glad to share, however I promised no answers. Please leave guesses in the comments and I’ll offer my theory later. Also, if no one comments, I’ll take this as further proof that the Word of the Day feature, a fixture of this relaunch, can probably be permanently retired. A shame if you ask me. Take this as a challenge.