‘-ee’ vs. ‘-ed’: What’s in a name?

According to common dictionaries and thesauruses, the word adoptee exists, but for a definition, you have to refer to the word adopted.

The word adoptee begrudgingly has an etymology. It seems to have come into existence in the late 1890’s, around the same time the orphan trains were rolling out of New York, clearing the streets of the filth – Street Arabs, Orphans, illegitimates, bastards – to sell to the emerging farmlands of the Midwest and West. If you need to sell something, it’s so much easier if a catchy label is attached.

The suffix, -ee indicates a loss of control over the main action – a person who is the recipient of an action; a person in a specified state or condition; and/or a diminutive form of something.

Adoptee indicates a loss of control over the act of adopting – a secondary character in the play.

In a common listing of suffixes, you’ll find -ed followed by -ee, so that the meanings amusingly read “possessing recipient”. However, adoptees do not exist in isolation anymore, so the alternative meaning applied to -ee: ‘of a specific group’ seems at once uplifting to those who were adopted and dangerous to those who wish to keep these disgruntled individuals divided and therefore conquered.

Word Origin & History


  • 1890-95; adopt- + -ee


  • 1540s, from Fr. adopter (14c.), from .adoptare “choose or oneself” (esp. a child); see adoption.
  • Or perhaps a back-formation from Eng. adoption. Originally in Eng. also of friends, fathers, citizens, etc. Sense of “to legally take as one’s own child” and that of “to embrace, espouse” a practice, method,etc. are from c.1600.


  • a suffix forming from transitive verbs nouns which denote a person who is the object or beneficiary of the act specified by the verb (addressee; employee; grantee); recent formations now also mark the performer of an act, with the base being an intransitive verb (escapee; returnee; standee) or, less frequently, a transitive verb (attendee) or another part of speech (absentee; refugee).
  • French: -é, (masculine), -ée (feminine), past participle endings
  • Latin: -ātus, -āta, -ate
  • indicating a person who is the recipient of an action (as opposed, esp in legal terminology, to the agent, indicated by -or or -er): assignee, grantee, lessee
  • indicating a person in a specified state or condition: absentee, employee
  • word-forming element in legal English (and in imitation of it), representing the Anglo-French -é ending of pps. used as nouns. As these sometimes were coupled with agent nouns in -or, the two suffixes came to be used as a pair to denote the initiator and the recipient of an action.

Slang definitions & phrases for -ee

  • used to form nouns The object of what is indicated: baby-sittee/ kickee/ muggee


  • derived from the English word adopt
  • derived from the Old French word adopter
  • derived from the Latin word adoptare (to adopt, select, secure)
  • using the Latin prefix ad-(to, in addition)
  • derived from the Latin word ad (to; near; to; to; to; near)
  • derived from the Latin word optare (choose, select; wish)


  • past participle suffix of weak verbs, from Old English -ed, -ad, -od (leveled to -ed in Middle English), from Proto-Germanic *-da- (cognates: Old High German -ta, German -t, Old Norse -þa, Gothic -da, -þs), from PIE *-to-, “suffix forming adjectives marking the accomplishment of the notion of the base” [Watkins] (cognates: Sanskrit -tah, Greek -tos, Latin -tus; see -th (1))¹
  • Originally fully pronounced, as still in beloved (which, with blessed, accursed, and a few others retains the full pronunciation through liturgical readings). In Old English already first and third person singular past tense forms of some “weak” verbs was -te, a variant of -de (see -ed), often accompanied by a change in vowel sound (as in modern keep/kept, sleep/slept). A tendency to shorten final consonants has left English with many past tense forms spelled in -ed but pronounced “-t.” In some older words both forms exist, with different shades of meaning, as in gilded/gilt, burned/burnt.¹
  • Old English: -de, -ede, -ode, -ade; orig. disputed
  • Middle English; Old English -ede



¹Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper


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