-er(s) in the Times

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sun Nov 22 03:15:35 UTC 2009

No, not the usual productive suffix, but a specific derogatory
spinoff as in "truther", "birther", "tea-bagger" and earlier
"flat-earther" (and I guess contemporary "young earther", if I didn't
just make that up, with its neo-Goethian overtones).  The piece is at

Author Leslie Savan cites our Victor Steinbok's observations here,
and has some nice observations or her own, although I'm not sure why
"Jack the Ripper" and "the Mad Hatter" are valid instances of the
"derogatory force of -er" anymore than "dancer", "singer", "speaker",
or "teacher" are counterexamples.  I think these are all simple
agentives; "Quaker" and similar religious labels (e.g. "Shaker",
"Holy Roller") are better candidates, especially since they share the
relevant features of "birther" and "deather" of originating as a
put-down and then (in some cases) adopting as a case of reclamation.

One formation that I think got missed here as another precedent or at
least exemplar, especially among Savan's inventory of -er terms "used
to deride political opponents", is "women's libber".  I remember
being struck at the time (early 70's?) that nobody would have
referred to Black Liberation Army members as "black libbers", or
members of other (non-feminist) activist groups as "libbers".  Part
of it was the truncation, of course, but part was also the -er suffix
(cf. "bra-burner", which Savan does cite).


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