My friend Graham reached middle age without professing more than a passing interest in football, but became a reluctant supporter after marrying a woman with a burning passion for the game. One word nearly sent him back to that earlier state of blissful unconcern. After offering some thoughts on crowd behaviour to a magazine, he was horrified to see his remarks paraphrased so that he appeared to describe himself as an "attendee".
Graham, pernickety in his choice of language, would no more use "attendee" than enter a cage for unarmed combat with a hungry lion. It is some time since we met, but he came instantly to mind as I read an interview with Karen Gillan, an actress with a leading role in the new series of the internationally popular British television series Doctor Who. What possible offence could Miss Gillan have caused her interviewer, from the British Sunday newspaper The Observer to find herself referred to as an "auditionee" for the part?
Attendee may be bad enough; I can think of only one -ee construction as ugly as auditionee. I will never forget the bus journey on which I first encountered the sign: "Standees are not allowed beyond this point." There is, of course, a distinction. The man from The Observer could point out that he was using -ee to form the direct object of the verb, something that attracts no complaint when we hear about interviewees, trainees and employees.
He may even accept that attendee and standee are simply wrong, yet unashamedly defend his attachment to auditionee. It seemed a good idea to turn to Fowler's Modern English Usage, not because Henry Watson Fowler and I always agree but because his arguments are so often presented entertainingly and with elegance. Mr Fowler noted several -ee formations in legal terminology. Persons to whom something is let, sold, entrusted or referred become lessees, vendees, trustees and referees, all examples of the indirect object.
Mr Fowler allows the legalistic usage to pass without criticism before moving on to such "agent-nouns" as refugees, debauchees and absentees. These are of French origin, deriving from reflexive nouns where the objects and subjects are the same. They represent what Mr Fowler calls a "modern tendency", which means he disapproves: "We already have at least three suffixes for that purpose (-er, -or and -ist) and to use one whose natural meaning is the opposite is gratuitously confusing. The unskilled workers used to 'dilute' skilled workers in time of war should have been called diluters instead of dilutees; the skilled were the dilutees."
I use the present tense, but it is worth remembering that Mr Fowler was writing more than a century ago; the continuing battles we have on linguistic issues vindicate another product of France, the phrase plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same). But no debate is required to see that if we take Mr Fowler as the authority, the person standing on a bus cannot possible be a standee, and the man at the football match is not an attendee. It is correct, however, to give Miss Gillan the ungainly status of a former auditionee.
I began with the single word that tested Graham's new-found interest in football, and shall end with the series of words that threatened to kill it off. Watching his wife's team leave the field 4-0 down at half-time, he idly imagined himself at the interval of a more genteel performance, the opera or a play perhaps, and began to applaud. The man behind exploded. "I've just spent half a week's wages travelling to the other end of the country to watch that heap of rubbish - and you sit there applauding," he exclaimed. Even with the expletives deleted, it is easy to imagine what the rebuke must have felt like in Graham's ears.
Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and can be contacted at email@example.com