I was playing Scrabble recently and the word ail was on the table. I tried to add an -er to the word to make the word "ailer." My reasoning was that since ail is a verb, one could add a suffix to the word to describe "one who ails." The word was challenged and removed since it is apparently not a word.

A "jumper" is one that jumps. A "renter" is one that rents. A "maker" is one that makes. Why is "ailer" not someone that ails?

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    It is. The fact that it’s not recorded in any dictionaries (even the OED doesn’t have it) is ultimately irrelevant to whether or not it’s ‘a word’. It’s regularly formed, it’s morphologically, phonetically, and semantically fine and instantly recognisable and understandable. It’s a word. Unfortunately, Scrabble doesn’t care whether something is a word or not, but whether something has been recorded in a specific dictionary or not—which is not at all the same thing! Ailer is much more of a word than many so-called ‘words’ that are allowed in Scrabble. Dec 8, 2014 at 17:58
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    Alas, no English derivational affix is regular, and that includes agentive -er. It's only inflectional affixes that are expected to be mostly regular, and to span a word class; derivation is noted for its irregularities. Why not typer instead of typist, phlebotomizer instead of phlebotomist, etc? Dec 8, 2014 at 18:04
  • Good point... but doesn't the -ist suffix typically indicate profession or vocation? While the -er could apply circumstantially? For example, right now I am not a typist, despite engaged in typing. Or am I?
    – Rusty Tuba
    Dec 8, 2014 at 18:13
  • @John Because blocking. Both typer and phlebotomizer are perfectly valid words to me, though not ones that necessarily mean the same as typist and phlebotomist. As Rusty Tuna indirectly said, those are not even really agentive derivations as such. Dec 8, 2014 at 18:20
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    Ailor, ailent, ailant ... Dec 8, 2014 at 19:08

2 Answers 2


Scrabble's standard for what constitutes a word, as Janus Bahs Jacquet notes in a comment, is whether or not it appears in a dictionary. For organized play, specifically, the word must appear in an official dictionary currently published by Merriam-Webster; various other dictionaries have been used in the past. This is rather different from a writer's definition, or a grammarian or other linguist's definition of what constitutes a word.

No dictionary can contain every possible variation of every possible valid word. Modern dictionaries do attempt to include words and meanings as they are commonly used; there is a long editorial process of identifying new words, finding evidence for their meanings, and choosing whether or not to include them. But while ailer is superficially analogous to, say, wailer, it is not in common use. I did not turn up a single example in COCA or the BNC, and the only examples I found in Google Books after 1900 are names or transcription errors. Given publishing constraints, a word that may be understood in context, but is rarely ever encountered, may be excluded from dictionaries uncontroversially.

Lastly, as John Lawler alludes, the fact that jumper or maker exists does not require that ailer also be accepted universally. One may be a sufferer, but not really a convalescer. Or someone who was ailing and is recovering may be a survivor, which brings up the point that the same sound may be represented differently in the written word; see What’s the rule for adding “-er” vs. “-or” when nouning a verb?, Pedlar vs. peddler and other questions tagged as . Perhaps the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary does list it— but as ailor. [Rhetorical point. It doesn't.]

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    Great answer! One thing I wanted to note is that I do not assert that the existence of "jumper" and "maker" implies that "ailer" must also exist (a fallacy known as a hasty generalization). The examples I provided were known examples where one could take a verb and add a suffix to refer to a legitimate noun. The real issue I have is when this is legitimate to do and when it is not legitimate to do. I also will say that in principle, a dictionary could contain every possible variation of every possibly valid word since there are finite words. The constraint is a practical one. Dec 8, 2014 at 19:38
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    The obvious answer is to make up an online dictionary, edit it when playing and you need a new word, and nobody can complain.
    – Oldcat
    Dec 8, 2014 at 19:45
  • @Oldcat Could that make kwyjibo cromulent? (encromulent? cromulentify?)
    – choster
    Dec 8, 2014 at 21:46

Ail, like itch, cannot be turned into a noun by tacking on the -er suffix, because the verbs express 'being passively in a state', whereas the core idea of '-er' is 'engaged in, doing'.

P.S. But how about sufferer?

I think the occupational or vocational meaning of the -er suffix has been broadened to mean 'one who is a member of a group with a defining characteristic'. Consider the American neologism birther, i.e. "one who claims that President Obama was not born on US soil." Thus, a sufferer is not simply "*one who suffers" but one who is a member of a group with a particular disease, a gout-sufferer, a shingles-sufferer. We do not hear the word unaccompanied by the condition suffered.

Consider also that there is no ambiguity with the word freezer among native speakers. A freezer is an appliance that causes other things to become frozen, not "*a thing which becomes frozen".

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    I had a line about that in a draft of my answer, but wasn't sure we could make a rule out of it. Sure, reigners and bewarers sound wrong, but can we really consider inheritors and sufferers to be engaged in an activity?
    – choster
    Dec 9, 2014 at 0:17
  • @choster yes we can, from the language point of view. From the philosophical too, according to teaching of Viktor Frankl, you can proactively decide to suffer or not to suffer :-) But seriously: You inherited, you suffer, but something ails you, something itches you. This answer is correct.
    – Tomas
    Dec 9, 2014 at 10:13
  • @choster: I have tried to address sufferer in a P.S. to my answer.
    – TimR
    Dec 9, 2014 at 11:36
  • One who ails could be described as a victim of ailing - so, in the same way as a trainee is a victim of training, or a an evictee is a victim of eviction, then ailee would be an equally valid derivation - although still wrong, of course. You can't just make up a neologism like that - unless describing a new phenomenon, as per the U.S. example - without it being recognised as odd. Dec 9, 2014 at 14:00

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