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Another thread addresses the Englishness of the words. My question is different and a lot more convoluted: I hope I can make it plain and simple.

I. There are straightforward nouns of action and agency with roots in English verbs: procrastinator, loafer, snoozer. And other nouns that arise from augmented (let's say) forms of the verb. 'Commentator' is one such word: there's no verb 'commentate.' 1

'Orientation' meaning 'guidance' or 'adjustment' ("student-orientation week") is another, though hugely more vexed because there actually is a verb 'orientate' meaning to face eastward (both transitively and intrans). But I convolute.

II. Not long ago, we had a thread about meter and foot in prose: iambic, trochaic, and who knows what else that I've forgotten since college. Arguably, as speakers and writers, we seem unconsciously to choose the iambic (say) over boring spondaic. As listeners, we perhaps naturally find the iambic most pleasant and (umm...) euphonious.

III. Finally, the question. Let's suppose that we do in truth prefer rhythm that we can grab, that we can lean on and stand on.

Do we then invent and manufacture made-up verbs just so as to give us corresponding made-up nouns that feel better to speak and write? That sound better to our ears? 'Commentator' sounds a lot better than 'commenter'. 'Orientator' is somehow easier to say than 'orienter'.

Not to go all Chomskian on y'all, but is there an impulsive, inborn, irresistible way to speak?

A natural way of locution? 2


1 Not by our lights, anyway. Right? Right?
2 Or am I merely dredging up fragments of Aristotle from dim recall?

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My guess on commentator is that it is originated from French or some other language. There is no verb 'commentate', but there might be a suffix '-ator'. In Russian there is a word with '-ator' for almost every English word with '-er'. For example, we have transformator, ammortizator, stabilizator etc. But I feel these words are borrowed words hence my guess they are from French. –  timur Apr 8 '11 at 14:51
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@timur - No verb Commentate? - merriam-webster.com/dictionary/commentate - Merriam-Webster disagrees –  Robb Apr 8 '11 at 15:03
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@Robb - It says back-formation from commentator, which saves at least half of what I said :) –  timur Apr 8 '11 at 15:06
    
Back-formation or none, it's still a word now (since 1794, no less!), and M-W is not alone in confirming so :) –  psmears Apr 8 '11 at 15:18
    
@psmears - Yes, I agree. In other words, I take back the statement "there is no verb commentate" and replace it with "commentate is a back-formation". –  timur Apr 8 '11 at 15:20

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The English word commentator comes directly from Medieval Latin commentator. However, this Latin ancestor is labelled as rare and some dictionaries don't have it.

Classical Latin does not use commentator but instead prefers commentor.

Both are formed after the verb commentārī, but one can see that by adding the standard Latin agent noun suffix ("-or") to the verb yields "commentor".

Please note that the Latin verb commentārī had a much broader meaning. It can be used as any of the followings: "to consider thoroughly [thoughts]", "to prepare [exposé]"; "to invent", "to compose", "to write [literary works]".

For instance, "commentarius" has the meaning of "memorandum , notebook". Remember for instance the original Latin title "Commentarii de Bello Gallico" of Julius Caesar's ("Commentaries on the Gallic War"): these are actually not comments but a notebook, a relation (a title designed to be neutral but with an agenda as is well known).

I'm not too sure why Medieval Latin "commentator" came to supplement Classical Latin "commentor" but I speculate that this is related to the gradual loss of meaning as "to invent" and to the consequent specialisation as "to expound" in which case "commentator" would be formed after "commentarius" the noun (this Julian "Commentarii" really looked like comments).

So we have "commentary" and "comment" (just as we have documentary and document).

Looking up both words in the Century Dictionary shows the nuance:

  • A commentator "makes comments or critical or expository notes upon a book or other writing".
  • A commenter "makes remarks about actions, opinions, etc.".

There's a whiff of scholarship in the commentator that is absent from the mere commenter.

I don't deny that musicality or morphological consistency have a role to play in our vocabulary. However, and this is particularly true of English, I would argue that when several words with close signification are in competition, they tend to specialise and contribute to the language's richness.

In that particular case the reason why we might be more attracted to the variant "commentator" is possibly because of its perceived higher quality standard.

Nevertheless, the word "commenter", having a long history of its own also has its dedicated niche where it is preferably used.

A significant proportion of the COCA corpus entries I found had "commenter" associated with "anonymous" or "typical": sounds better than "anonymous commentator" this time.

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+1 for the gorgeous exposition! Thank you, Alain! In support of Alain, I see this in the Online Etymology Dictionary ( etymonline.com/index.php?term=commentator ): commentator: late 14c., "writer of commentaries," agent noun in Latin form from comment or commentary (L. commentator meant "inventor, author"). Meaning "writer of notes or expository comments" is from 1640s; "one who gives commentary" (originally in sports) is from 1928. –  Pete Wilson Apr 8 '11 at 22:29
    
I was rude! I earlier said "In support of Alain, I see this .." when I plainly should have said "And look here! Even The Online Etymology Dictionary completely agrees with Alain ..." I hope Alain will accept my apology. –  Pete Wilson Apr 8 '11 at 22:48
    
@Pete Wilson. Pete, I can't fathom what could be perceived as rude in your appreciation. I had a look at etymonline following your comment and I'm glad you added this precision. As you can see one of the invaluable aspects of EL&U is that it brings together many hobbyists from all around the planet, each of them bringing in a piece of the puzzle. Moreover, the beauty of it is that each of us gets to comprehend (in the etymological sense) the whole puzzle as its own. Many thanks to you for this very well crafted and interesting question. –  Alain Pannetier Φ Apr 8 '11 at 23:13

A commentator is someone that tells you details about an ongoing event, such as a sports game, national ceremony, etc., because they can see things that you can't.

A commenter, on the other hand, is different depending on the context.

  1. A commenter is someone who comments on past events , such as a news event, sports event, blog posting, etc.
  2. A commenter is also a person that goes through computer programs that are poorly documented, and adds comments to describe in plain english as to what the code is doing.
  3. A commenter is a critic, journalist who comments on something they've seen and they give you their interpretation of what they think would interest you.

Source.

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In my opinion, your third description of a commenter is not correct; commentator would be a much better word to use for "a critic or journalist who comments on something they've seen [...] and gives you their interpretation." –  Uticensis Apr 9 '11 at 0:54

A commentator is more than a commenter.

Traditionally, a commentator is someone who reports the affairs of the day - a pundit. A "commenter" would be a person making an observation, e.g., "Oh look, it's raining." The word "commentator" may offer a sense of being a portmanteau of "comment" with "orator" or "pontificator." It most assuredly is not(!) but for that reason it does not jar the ear.

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