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Background

In the context of a legal/political philosophical writing, I have occasion to examine the relationship between one who makes a threat (the "threatener") and one against whom a threat has putatively been made (the "threatenee").

Preliminary Research

OED has an entry for "threatener." Google n-grams confirms that it is used, but only rarely. Notably, a general search reveals that its used almost exclusively in contexts like mine. However, there is no OED entry for "threatenee." N-grams lists no books, but a general search yields a number of hits works similar to those above. It seems as though "threatenee" is accepted, if in very limited use.

As an alternative, I am considering "the threatened" carrying the (to me obvious) sense of "the threatened [person]." Ambiguity might arise in situations where "the threatened [course of action]" is a reasonable interpretation, but I think those will be rare and can be dealt with contextually. There may be additional alternatives but I have no data on use or acceptability for any.

I have three questions:

  1. Is threatener / threatenee acceptable to you?
  2. If any part is not, can you suggest an alternative?
  3. Are there any general rules for determining the appropriate suffix in such cases?

Re: #3, This post on choosing verb to noun suffixes suggests there are no general rules. This post specifically on "er/or" suggests a German/Latin distinction between "er/or" for verb -> "acting on" noun. Other posts suggest that when both are available, choose based on contemporary usage (see, e.g. the post on canceller / cancellor), but there isn't much guidance when both are rare. Finally, this post specifically on "ee" suggests "ee" is acceptable for nearly any verb -> "acted on" noun so long as it will be clear to the audience.

  • I suspect that the question will resolve as "opinion" - i.e., an individual's penchant for style and tolerance for affected speech. "Threatened" and "threatenee" will be understood, but the latter may strike some as a needless resort to the French participial suffix. While there's probably no fast rule, one might simply ask "Is it really necessary?" – Rob_Ster Nov 17 '17 at 17:40
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    @Rob_Ster: I don't think necessity is relevant. Some words are needed but missing -- what's the infinitive of may? -- and some words are unneeded but go largely unremarked-upon: why do we need accountancy when we already have accounting? The only time anyone asks "Is it really necessary?" is when they already dislike something and are trying to come up with an excuse. – ruakh Nov 17 '17 at 20:48
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Many -er nouns built from verbs do not have -ee correlatives at the opposite end of the implied action. In some cases, the person or thing at the other end is also identified with an -er noun (giver, receiver; seller, buyer; pitcher, catcher; speaker, listener; writer, reader; teacher, learner; leader, follower). In others, the person or thing at the opposite end has no such -er noun match (murderer, victim, for example). And in some, an -ee form has appeared to fill a perceived void in at the opposite end of an action (assigner, assignee; trainer, trainee; payer, payee).

This last phenomenon has also occasionally extended to pairs that involve an -or noun (advisor, advisee; bailor, bailee; mentor, mentee) or even an -ant noun (appellant, appellee).

Some -ee nouns have lost their original counterpart or have otherwise altered form. A referee, for example, originated as a person to whom a referrer referred one or more questions for resolution, but no one watching a basketball game or a boxing match today expects the referee to sit idly by until requested to intervene in a dispute. Likewise, a trustee originated as someone whom a truster trusted to perform some important fiduciary (or other) task. And in a slightly different case, a designee is the counterpart not of a designer but of a designator.

In looking over the terms that have evolved as -er/-ee or -or/-ee pairs, I note that they seem to be concentrated in business and legal settings. Evidently, mainstream, nonspecialist English speakers have not leapt at the opportunity to match joker with jokee, announcer with announcee, comforter with comfortee, or suitor with suitee.

I suspect that the concentration of -ee forms in a handful of jargon-heavy areas of the workaday world is no mere happenstance. Some fields that involve various pairs exact real-world counterparts may gravitate toward adopting mirror-image words as the clearest possible way to identify the components or participants such pairs.

But if that description of the -er/-ee phenomenon in English is accurate, it weakens the case for inventing mirroring nouns (such as threatenee) to complement a counterpart noun (such as threatener) in a pair that has no exact legal or corporate meaning. There is no simple, all-purpose noun for someone whom someone else threatens. Victim might be suitable if the threatened person is innocent of any wrongdoing—but what if the threatener is a judge telling a defendant who has been found guilty in a criminal trial that, although she is suspending his sentence this time, if he shows up in her courtroom again, she'll throw the book at him?. I hardly think that victim is an appropriate word choice in this case—and yet calling the lucky miscreant a threatenee borders on ludicrous, simply because the term has so little actual usage to support it and so little need to exist.

It might be marginally appropriate to refer to the judge as "the threatener" (although I wouldn't use that term, despite the fact that her warning constitutes a threat), but calling her "the judge" makes a lot more sense; and similarly, referring to the person she threatens as "the defendant" seems much wiser than pulling "the threatenee" out of a hat in the name of single-word exactitude.

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  1. Is threatener / threatenee acceptable to you?

I find threatener a bit awkward when I think about it too hard, but in running text I probably wouldn't notice it.

Threatenee, by contrast, really stands out; it's perfectly intelligible, but it sounds almost playful, which is probably not what you want. (That said, if I saw it in an otherwise sober context, I might simply assume that it's a standard term in legalese or bureaucratese or the like.)

  1. If any part is not, can you suggest an alternative?

Depending what the threat is, it may have a victim; if not, it may have a recipient. (It may also have a subject, if — say — a parent receives a threat of harm to his/her child: the parent is the threat's recipient, the child is its subject. And either or both may be called its targets.)

  1. Are there any general rules for determining the appropriate suffix in such cases?

Sadly, no.

As an alternative, I am considering "the threatened" carrying the (to me obvious) sense of "the threatened [person]."

That works in some contexts, but not others, for reasons that are hard to articulate. ("The relationship between threatener and threatened" is fine; *"The threatened eventually moved away for unrelated reasons" is not.) If you're not confident that you'll be able to tell which ones work and which ones don't, I wouldn't recommend this approach (unless you have access to someone who can help you with that).

Ambiguity might arise in situations where "the threatened [course of action]" is a reasonable interpretation, but I think those will be rare and can be dealt with contextually.

Oddly enough, I don't think "the threatened" can ever mean "the threatened [course of action]"; past participles almost exclusively stand in for animate nouns. However, it could refer to the subject of a threat who is not actually its recipient.

  • "Victim" would be my vote too. "Threatener" is close in meaning to "assaulter" and certainly in a legal or legal-like context the appropriate term for the subject would be the victim. – MetaEd Nov 17 '17 at 18:11

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