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John Cowan

Another American instance is Saviour when capitalized and referring to Jesus, but this is by no means a universal usage. In addition, the words with stressed -our, namely amour, devour, dour, flour, four, our, pompadour, pour, scour, sour, tour and their compounds, are of course spelled with -our in AmE as in BrE.

Peter Harvey

Thank you John. Of course I was referring only to words of Latin origin, excluding agent nouns (author, actor etc.), pronounced as schwa. Your comment about Saviour is very interesting. I will deal with it in a separate post.

John Cowan

Actually, the original spellings of those two were actour (last recorded 1568 by the OED1) and authour (last recorded 1678). Although they have separate Latin roots, they became rather confused in English, both being pronounced "autor" for quite a while: the modern pronunciations are derived from the remodeled spellings.

The OED gives the whole story s.v. -or (I hope you don't mind this rather massive paste):

The majority of Middle English words with this ending are borrowed via Anglo-Norman, Old French, or Middle French. Latin ō gives in early Old French a sound represented in writing by o or u , hence onor, onur for classical Latin honōr- . In Anglo-Norman this developed to ou , while in Central French eu ultimately became the usual form.

The earliest adopted words in Middle English had o or u (onor, onur), but the regular representation after 1300 was that of Anglo-Norman ou (onour, honour). In many instances this is still retained; but, in the early modern period, many of the -our words, which in other respects were like their Latin originals, were respelt in -or after Latin; and nearly all words taken then or later directly from Latin were ultimately spelt -or , though, even in these words, there was at first a considerable variation between -or and -our.

(i) Such nouns of condition now spelt with -or as existed in Middle English, such as error n., horror n., liquor n., pallor n., tenor n.1, were formerly frequently spelt with -our. -or is occasionally found in some of these words in Middle English; it became more common in the 16th cent., and generally prevailed by the end of the 18th cent. (In other words of the same class, as ardour n., favour n., humour n., labour n., valour n., as also in some words not directly connected with extant Latin verbs, as colour n.1, honour n., odour n., -our and -or were in free variation during the early modern period; -our is generally retained in British usage, but U.S. usage spells these also with -or : ardor , favor , labor , color , honor , etc. See -our suffix.) Words of this kind that entered English later, such as livor n., mucor n., squalor n., torpor n., were rarely written with -our.

(ii) There are three varieties of agent noun formation:

(a) Those representing Latin agent nouns in which the agent suffix was not originally preceded by a vowel, as actor n., assessor n., author n., captor n., censor n., confessor n., doctor n., elector n., extensor n., factor n., flexor n., inventor n., lictor n., oppressor n., pastor n., possessor n., professor n., rector n., sculptor n., sponsor n., successor n., transgressor n., tutor n., victor n.1 These are of different ages, going back to Old French words in -or, -ur, Anglo-Norman words in -our , cognate with French -eur , or Latin words in -or. So far as they existed in Middle English, they were then spelt -our; they are now all conformed to the Latin spelling in -or .

(b) Those representing agent nouns which in classical Latin ended in -ātor, -ētor, -itor, -ītor and which came down in living use into Old French. These terminations were regularly reduced from -ātōr-, etc., to (disyllabic) -eor, -eur, Anglo-Norman -eour, which became in French (monosyllabic) -eur and in Middle English -our, and thus fell together with those from simple -ōr- in (a). Examples are barrator n., conqueror n., donor n., emperor n., governor n., juror n. (To this group also belongs saviour, which has preserved the vowel before -our and is the main word of the group in which -our is kept in British spelling; see -iour suffix and -our suffix.) To these may be added agent nouns formed in French or Anglo-Norman on the verb stem, on the analogy of those in which -eor, -eur, -our, etc., represented classical Latin -ātōr-, etc., as grantor n., purveyor n., surveyor n., tailor n.1, warrior n. From lack of evidence it is sometimes uncertain whether the agent noun was already formed in post-classical Latin in -ator, -itor, or in French after these suffixes had been reduced to -eor and -eur, Anglo-Norman -our.

(c) Those representing agent nouns in -ātor, -ētor, -itor, -ītor, -ūtor, adopted in later times in French, or in English, which retain t, appearing in French as -ateur, -iteur, etc., and have now in English the same written form as in Latin, e.g. administrator n., agitator n., creator n., curator n., dictator n., equator n., gladiator n., imitator n., legislator n., navigator n., spectator n., translator n., vindicator n.; orator n., procurator n.1, senator n.; auditor n., creditor n., editor n., janitor n., monitor n., servitor n., executor n. These are of different ages: some from Old French or Anglo-Norman (in which case they formerly had -our, as creatour, creditour, dictatour, oratour, servitour); some of later formation immediately from Latin, which have had the -or form from the first. The pronunciation varies greatly, the stress being sometimes as in the classical Latin nominative (creˈator , ˈcreditor); sometimes on the second syllable before the stressed vowel of the Anglo-Norman and Latin accusative (on which a secondary stress fell originally in Middle English), as in ˈauditor (in Middle English ˌaudiˈtour, in classical Latin ˌaudīˈtōr-), and similarly ˈorator, ˈsenator, ˈservitor, eˈxecutor; and sometimes corresponding with that of the English verb, as adˈministrator, ˈagitator, ˈimitator, ˈprosecutor, or otherwise shifted, as ˈprocurator. In some cases two forms exist, as cuˈrator after the classical Latin nominative, besides the former pronunciation ˈcurator after ˌcuraˈtour, ˌcūrāˈtōr-.

The suffix has been productive in English at all periods from the 16th cent. onwards, especially in nouns formed on verbs ending in -ate or classical Latin past participial stems, e.g. opiniator n. (16th cent.), obstructor n. (17th cent.), oscillator n. (18th cent.), originator n. (19th cent.), nucleator n. (20th cent.).

-or in agent nouns is sometimes an alteration of another suffix, as of classical Latin -ārius, French -ier, Anglo-Norman -er, in bachelor n., chancellor n., heritor n., or of English -er < Old English -ere , in sailor n., bettor n. The frequent occurrence of Middle English -our, modern -or, in legal terms denoting the person acting, as opposed to the person acted upon in -é, -ee, e.g. lessor, lessee, grantor, grantee, mortgageor , mortgagee, has imparted a kind of technical or professional character to the ending, and explains the differentiation of sailor, one who sails professionally, from sailer. (In Middle English there was a tendency to confuse the endings -er and -our (helped probably by the Old French declension: nominative -ere < classical Latin -ātor ; accusative -or, -ur, -eur, classical Latin -ātōrem); thus butcher, dicer, fletcher, jailer, jester, juggler, porter, etc., are found also with the ending -our. On the other hand, in a large number of words, the original -our, -or has, since the 15th cent., been exchanged for the -er suffix of agent-nouns of English derivation; such are barber, broker, chanter, diviner, labourer, pleader, preacher, robber, rhymer, in all of which the earlier -our, -or, is the etymological form.)

(iii) -or (older -our ) sometimes represents French -oir, from various sources, as manor n. (Old French manoir, maneir); mirror n. (French miroir : compare -our in parlour, French parloir, post-classical Latin parlatorium).

In major adj. and n.1 and minor adj. and n. -or (Middle English -our ) represents Anglo-Norman -our , French -eur < classical Latin -ōr-, -or, comparative suffix, a variant of -ior.

Peter Harvey

Thank you for posting/pasting that very full explanation. The point about -ee words denoting the person acted upon is interesting as there are some notable exceptions such as attendee, escapee. I might write about that some time.


Not to mention the classic "mentee" (i.e. one under the supervision of a mentor).

Peter Harvey

Ouch! I hadn't come across that one.

John Cowan

Yes, the OED2 was written before the ergativity explanation of -ee was discovered. For more on this, and on ergativity generally, see my Cthulhu-based tutorial.

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