The suffixes -ist, -ite, and -ian all mean a follower of a person or idea. For example, a follower of Christianity is a Christian, a follower of Buddhism is a Buddhist, and a follower of Shia Islam is a Shiite. What is the difference between all of these suffixes?

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    It's clear, I think, why citizens of Paris prefer to be called "Parisians" and not "Parisites." – Sven Yargs Apr 30 '13 at 2:50

From Chambers Dictionary:

“-ite” is a suffix used to “form names of people, indicating their origin, place of origin, affiliations, loyalties” (e.g. Jacobite). Whereas suffixes “-an” or “–ian” denotes “things belong to or typical of a specific person” (e.g. Johnsonian).

I couldn't find anything on -ist. They generally all mean the same thing though and I assume the reason we have all three in English is so there is always a good aesthetic/phonetic fit for various situations.

  • I thought perhaps -ist might be etymologically related to -ist, but it isn't. The former comes from Greek -ιστής (istēs), the latter from -ισμός (-ismos), indirectly -ίζειν (-izein). Still, many -ist words come from -ism (Calvinism, sexism) even though many others behave differently (botanist, Judaism). – Bradd Szonye Apr 30 '13 at 4:43
  • I don't think Chambers' distinction holds water anymore. I think you are right, the preferred ending depends aesthetically on the word being ended. A person from Alabama is an Alabaman, A person from Washington is a Washingtonian, a person from Michigan is a Michigander, a person from Rochester is a Rochesterian. But an -ist is not a "from-somewhere" ending it is "a-practicer-of" ending- a violinist, a nudist, a botanist etc. – Jim Apr 30 '13 at 5:06

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