Kayaker vs. canoeist: agent nouns and suffixes

A reader asks this interesting question:

Two items in the news yesterday made me wonder, and I hope you have an answer to my question. The first Item referred to a man in a kayak as a "kayaker," the second item referred to a man in a canoe as a "canoeist." Both are paddling a watercraft, so why is one an "er" and the other an "ist"?

Both kayaker and canoeist are agent nouns, words formed from other words to identify a person taking an action. I thought the answer could lie in the etymology of the suffixes -er and -ist. The suffix -er comes from Anglo-French, and -ist comes from Greek. But kayak is an Inuit word, and canoe apparently came into English by way of French and Spanish from native languages in South America and the Caribbean. Etymology doesn't give a clear answer.

I checked usage authorities and could find no rule on when to use -er (sometimes -or) or -ist to create an agent noun.

Two things might appear to govern the choice: sound and writing. Canoeist sounds better and is more easily understood in writing than canoeer. Kayaker probably falls more easily off the tongue than kayakist. I think that also applies to other agent nouns. We go by sound and writing to determine which suffix to use.

We could imagine, too, that an -er noun carries an image of more vigorous action than an -ist noun. Kayakers do seem to be paddling furiously whenever I see them,  and when I have tried kayaking myself, I found it quite stenuous. But I know canoeists have vigorous moments, too. I certainly admire those who pursue either activity.

So if you are uncertain about which suffix to choose when forming an agent noun, the best course is to find the word in the dictionary.

Here is a link to an examination of various job titles that use -er, -or or -ist.


This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.