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Township Roads: Almost the right word

Fri, Mar 7th, 2003
Posted in Columnists

When our second son, Matt, was just a little guy, he went on a school field trip. They were gone for the day to the Twin Cities. We didnt know the trip itinerary so we quizzed him about his activities when he got home. We asked him what he had seen. He quickly replied, "I saw a Matisse." My wife and I looked at each other. We were very impressed that the field trip included a stop at an art museum. We questioned Matt a little more about the details of the Matisse. He looked thoughtful for a moment and said, "No, I guess it was a hippopotamus." Matisse. Hippopotamus. Thats an easy mistake to make. The words are almost the same.

Mark Twain wrote a lot of words and among them he wrote, "The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." Now, before you say, "You are no Mark Twain," let me tell you that I am no Mark Twain. However, I do try to use the right words in my writing and find it annoying when other writers use "almost the right word" in lieu of the right word. It is particularly annoying when they use "absolutely the wrong word" repeatedly and intentionally.

I have fought a low-key ongoing battle with several of my professional colleagues over this issue. The word in question is "contractee". My colleagues are highly educated individuals who generally have a fair share of common sense and wisdom. Except in this instance. The problem arose because they wanted a word that means "someone who deals with a contractor". Instead of looking in the dictionary to find the word "contractant", they made up the word "contractee". There is no such word in my English language dictionary and I doubt if it appears in anyone elses either.

Perhaps they took this creative shortcut to make their lives easier. They probably thought that it was easier for the people we deal with to understand the relationship between a contractor and a contractee, even though a contractor exists in the real world and a contractee exists only in their minds. It must have seemed easier to them to invent a word than to try to inform others of the correct word. They were thinking that everyone knows the relationship between an employer and an employee so the same should be true with a contractor and a contractee. Unfortunately, the English language does not work that way. The situation is made worse by their refusal to correct the mistake after years of my nagging. When I mention it, as I often do, they look at me as if I had suggested that there is no Easter Bunny or no Tooth Fairy. They dont want to believe that their mythical Contractee exists only in their minds just as the aforementioned characters. They know what they need to do, but they arent going to do it.

Using my colleagues logic that it is acceptable to invent a word if it is convenient to do so, I was thinking that it would be an interesting exercise to create a few words of my own. All I have to do is to add "ee" to the end of a noun ending with "er" or "or" to create a relationship. Inventing language becomes remarkably simple.

For example, as I am the writer of this diatribe, you would be the writee, that is, the one who receives the action, formerly known as the reader.

A doctor would do what he or she does with a doctee and the rest of us would not have to be patients. Patient never really described a doctee that wanted to see a doctor any time soon anyway.

School bus drivers used to pick up and deliver riders, now they deliver drivees.

Teachers formerly taught students, but now have teachees.

Life on the farm would get more descriptive. One who milks, that is, a milker, does what needs to be done to a milkee, formerly known as a cow.

A hunter pursues the huntee. The predator used to go after prey, but now eats the predatee.

And speaking of predation, a lawyer used to have a client, but now is paid by the lawyee.

Well, you get the idea. There are limitless examples. Id encourage you to think up and use as many of your own words as you possibly can. Such creativity can only help to enrich our stuffy English language. Remember, just because it is not in the dictionary doesnt mean it cant be a word.

Wayne Pike can be contacted at landmark@smig.net

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