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There are drummers, buglers, fifers, whistlers, and fiddlers. Folks who play all the other instruments use the -ist suffix -- pianist, violinist, cellist, tympanist, guitarist, flautist, etc, etc, ad nauseum. What determines which suffix should be used?

  • -er is common in English (because of its Germanic roots). – Misti Jan 26 '15 at 13:11
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    I always thought the more mundane day-to-day people are -ers, the rarer, higher-level, specialists (note the -ist) are -ists or -ans. Also, it's quite true what @oerkelens has noted about verbs taking the -er suffix, with maybe some exceptions (one who types should be a typer, not a typist?). – Kris Jan 26 '15 at 13:43
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    @MystiSinha no, that question does not mention "-ist" – Qsigma Jan 27 '15 at 14:36
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    As with many other similar questions, the rule is simple: you look it up in the dictionary, and see which form(s) you find there. :) – Marthaª Jan 27 '15 at 23:37
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What strikes me is that the -er ones look like they are derived from verbs: a drummer drums, a fiddler fiddles, a whistler whistles.

A guitarist plays guitar, a pianist plays piano.

So if the instrument is also (used) as a verb, we seem to prefer deriving the name for the musician from that verb, rather than from the instrument.

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    I wanted to say the same. Actually I always took as granted that this is the case. – AverageGatsby Jan 26 '15 at 13:36
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    Most would agree -- including the BBC bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/grammar/learnit/… -- but it's still an opinion or at best a rule that's only sometimes followed. – Kris Jan 26 '15 at 13:46
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    So a bugler bugles, and a fifer fifes? – Ypnypn Jan 26 '15 at 20:03
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    @Ypnypn: yes, fife is a verb, albeit archaic. – oerkelens Jan 26 '15 at 21:21
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    But really all this talk about drummers misses the point, since they are really called percussionists. – AJMansfield Jan 27 '15 at 12:31
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Reference The New Fowler's Modern English Usage.

Compare doer and perpetrator. (-or is the Latin agent-noun ending corresponding to English -er)

English verbs derived from Latin —such as act, credit, invent, oppress, possess, prosecute, protect—usually prefer this Latin ending to the English one in -er.

Some other verbs, e.g. conquer, govern, and purvey, not corresponding to the above description have agent-nouns in -or owing to their passage through French or through some other circumstance.

A select list of differences may be of interest: corrupter and corrector, deserter and abductor; dispenser and distributor, eraser and ejector.

Some verbs generate alternative forms, generally preferring -er for the personal and -or for the mechanical agent (e.g. adapt, convey, distribute, resist)

There are several -ist types:

(a) Forming a simple agent-noun and usually having an accompanying verb in -ize (antagonist, apologist, evangelist, etc.) and an accompanying abstract noun in -ism (antagonism,etc.);

(b) designating a person devoted to some art, science, etc., e.g. archaeologist, economist, artistinstrumentalist, dramatist, philologist;

(c) designating an adherent of some creed, doctrine, etc., e.g. atheist, Buddhist, Calvinist, hedonist;

(d) modern formations of various kinds, e.g. balloonist, cyclist, fetishist, finalist

  • 'Violinist' derives from the instrument being played, not from a verb describing what they do, the art they follow, or a doctrine they adhere to. – Roaring Fish Jan 26 '15 at 18:01
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    I am absolutely going to tell people I guitarize from now on. – KutuluMike Jan 26 '15 at 18:42
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    I would take Fowler's assertion- A guitarist and a pianist -are instrumentalist- and/or artist in their own right. – justjoined Jan 26 '15 at 19:34
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I am tempted to explain the -er musicians' titles as being military-related. Buglers, fifers, drummers...all are associated with military events, ceremonies, or marching. Even penny-whistlers have accompanied marching men...and anyway, "whistlist" would sound like a roster of card-players.

...But there's an exception. The odd-man-out is the fiddler...not associated with military matters, to the best of my knowledge. Perhaps we can attribute the use of "fiddler" to the informal type of music generally played on a fiddle -- folk and country music -- which condemns the musician to the lowly -er. If one plays more formal music, one is therefore recognized by all cognoscenti to be a violinist.

But if you'd like a little giggle, try to imagine a contestant at a local banjo and fiddle festival who advertises himself as "Jim-Bob Yokum, Fiddlist".

  • There are probably many exceptions: I am a trumpeter, cornetist (not a cornettist - different instrument) and bugler. The first is not military, the second is, and the third definitely is. – Phil M Jones Jan 26 '15 at 11:01
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    Wouldn't a drummer also be a percussionist? – Roaring Fish Jan 26 '15 at 11:59
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    @RoaringFish and a fiddler would be a violinist. The divide is so sharply defined that some people believe they are different instruments. – Random832 Jan 26 '15 at 17:09
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Maybe it's just because they end in [e]? "Trombone" is an exception (There's one in every crowd) and "oboe" and seems problematic - but, when in doubt, you can always say, "He's a ____ (name of instrument) player.

  • Drum doesn't end in [e]. I did wonder if it had something to with the phonology, but that idea fell apart when I thought of 'violinist' and 'Berliner'. If we are happy enough to have Berliners in the world, why not violiners? Next thought: etymology. – Roaring Fish Jan 26 '15 at 17:51
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In the original poster's list of examples, it seems that the words with Germanic origin (such as "drummer") end with "er", and the words with Latin origin (such as "pianist") end with "ist".

Many of music's Latin-origin words are from Italian.

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