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Anecdotally, it seems that in recent years, the "-ee" ending for the subject of an action has become diluted and often stands for the agent of the action, rather than its object.

Examples:

I don't see any change in the opposite direction. For example, one who has been retired is called a retiree (not *retirer), although it's common to describe a person as having retired. Someone given refuge is still called a refugee, not a *refuger.

Is there any objective (quantitative) evidence that this is a trend?

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    The following comment from Dictionary.com appears to confirm your view: -ee is a suffix forming from transitive verbs nouns which denote a person who is the object or beneficiary of the act specified by the verb (addressee; employee; grantee); recent formations now also mark the performer of an act, with the base being an intransitive verb (escapee; returnee; standee) or, less frequently, a transitive verb (attendee) or another part of speech (absentee; refugee). - dictionary.com/browse/-ee?s=t – user66974 Nov 10 '16 at 16:22
  • 'Absentee' and 'refugee' are well-established English words. Others such as 'attendee' seem to be more recent coinages. – Kate Bunting Nov 10 '16 at 17:16
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    Recent years??? "Absentee" and "refugee" have been common since 1800, at least. "Escapee" took off about 1940, and "attendee" about 1960. "Standee" apparently got it's start during WWII as a term for a sort of ship-board bunk bed. "Returnee" appears to have originated during or after WWII, in reference to displaced persons. – Hot Licks Nov 10 '16 at 23:42
  • @HotL - Yes, I did mean to state that I suspected recency illusion on my part. Thank you for the additional information - all quite interesting. P.S. Can I get-out-of-jail with the claim that 1800 is quite recent in the lifespan of English? Oh well, it was worth a try! – Toby Speight Nov 11 '16 at 9:03
  • Just to clarify, I put retiree andrefugee in the "traditional" (subject) sense of the construction, to contrast with the words used as agent nouns. I hope my edit makes that clearer. – Toby Speight Nov 11 '16 at 9:09
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The dilution you are seeing is not a new set of uses in slightly different circumstances, but rather you're recognizing that the consistent usage always had a broader meaning reflecting the original meaning of the suffix in French.

The '-ee' suffix comes from the French past participle formation mostly corresponding the English past participle ending '-ed'. The past participle can be used as an adjective, or as a person with the attributes described by the adjective. That is general enough to include both the object of an action (in the pair agent/object like employer/employee from someone employs someone else; someone else is employed and is called an employee) or someone does something (the man attended the conference, so the man is an attendee).

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The suffix -ee is:

  • word-forming element in legal English (and in imitation of it), representing the Anglo-French -é ending of past participles used as nouns (compare -y (3)). As these sometimes were coupled with agent nouns in -or, the two suffixes came to be used as a pair to denote the initiator and the recipient of an action.

Looking at your examples I don't see the trend you are suggesting, and every term has its own etymological development:

escapee (n.) is a more common term than escaper but it not a recent one: Ngram:

  • "escaped prisoner or convict," 1865, American English, from escape (v.) + -ee.

attendee (n.):

  • "one who attends" (something), 1961, from attend + -ee. Attender is older (mid-15c.) but had senses "one who waits upon" and "one who gives heed."

absentee (n.) :

  • 1530s, from absent (v.) + -ee. In reference to voting, 1932, American English.

refugee (n.)

  • 1680s, from French refugié, noun use of past participle of refugier "to take shelter, protect," from Old French refuge .............. The word meant "one seeking asylum," till 1914, when it evolved to mean "one fleeing home" (first applied in this sense to civilians in Flanders heading west to escape fighting in World War I).

Etymonline

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