One who farms is called a farmer.

One who waits is called a waiter.

One who dives is called a diver.

One who programs is called a programmer.

But one who guards is called a guard.

How did it come to be that this word dropped its -er ending for its noun, and are there other examples like it, sharing any commonalities?

Dictionary.com lists guarder as a noun, implying that it can be used instead of guard (and has an example sentence). But from my experience as a native American-English speaker, I can't recall it ever being used outside of poetic-style writing. Both dictionary.com and merriam-webster list guard as coming from the Old-French guarder, but I'm not sure why this word was special and dropped the -er.

  • 51
    In fairness, you might be guardian (if you're guarding a ward) or a warden (if you're guarding prisoners). Not that that helps.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Aug 29, 2018 at 23:19
  • 29
    Judge not judger is another example.
    – Lumberjack
    Commented Aug 29, 2018 at 23:20
  • 7
    The Old French word guarder (modern French garder) meant to guard. The Old French word for one who guards was guardian (modern French gardien). The -er was never dropped. Commented Aug 29, 2018 at 23:56
  • 13
    There are other suffixes besides -er/-or indicating agency; one who types is a typist, one who occupies is an occupant, and one who politics is a politician, and then there are the various (mostly obsolete) suffixes for female agents, producing the likes of aviatrix and authoress.
    – choster
    Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 0:10
  • 34
    It's English. Words adopted from a dozen different languages, at many different times, and merged with other words or conventions.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 1:21

4 Answers 4


You can't drop what you never had. Guard (noun) according to the Oxford English Dictionary comes from:

French garde, earlier also guarde (= Italian guarda, Spanish guarda) < Romance *guarda, < Old Germanic *wardâ.

The noun "guard" predates the verb in English. The verb to guard comes either from the noun or from the same French word the noun comes from. For some reason, as you note, there is a word guarder (formed from guard (verb) + er) that came into being after both the noun and verb forms of guard (which looks like it was a lot more popular some hundreds of years ago, but isn't really used now).

Interestingly enough some of your examples aren't really examples. Farmer, for example, wasn't originally formed from the English words farm + er. The OED lists its etymology as:

Anglo-Norman fermer (Britton), French fermier < medieval Latin firmārius, < firma : see farm n.2 Now usually apprehended as agent-noun < farm v.2 + -er suffix1; some modern uses may be properly regarded as belonging to this formation and not to the older word.

In the early recorded forms the suffix -er has been replaced by -our, so that the word apparently corresponds to the synonymous medieval Latin firmātor, one who takes something on lease (Du Cange), agent-noun < firmāre in sense to contract for, become responsible for.

Similarly, waiter wasn't formed in English originally according to the OED:

Originally < Anglo-Norman *waitour, Old French weitteor, gaiteor, agent-noun < weitier, gaitier wait v.1 In later use < wait v.1 + -er suffix1.

  • +1 Interesting answer. Do you happen to have a source saying that the noun predates the verb in French? Or did you mean in English? // One other minor point: you say water has a similar etymology, but I see it has the suffix -er rather than -arius? // Lastly, it isn't entirely clear to me what the OED means when it says "so that the word apparently corresponds to the synonymous medieval Latin firmātor": what do you think they mean by "correspond", exactly? Does it still come from firmarius, or does it have a mixed origin? But perhaps we should ask the editors of the dictionary. Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 0:05
  • 4
    Beat me to the punch; this is also why one who soldiers is a soldier, not to mention more general examples where the noun and verb meanings are divergent (e.g. lord, dwarf).
    – choster
    Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 0:09
  • 3
    @WhatRoughBeast Of course not: a dwarf dwarves, doncha know. :)
    – tchrist
    Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 2:39
  • 2
    @choster actually crabs do crab. The act of walking sideways as crabs do is crabbing or 'to crab'. Also used in aviation to denote a plane flying sideways. For ref see: en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/crab
    – JoelAZ
    Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 19:21
  • 2
    @choster Dogs do dog. My spaniel followed me from room to room, often so closely that we considered renaming him "Trip Hazard".
    – G_B
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 1:02

How about these, examples of professions that are both verb and noun where the verb expresses the work that the person typically does:

  • guard
  • coach
  • cook
  • guide
  • host
  • judge
  • nurse
  • pimp
  • scout
  • smith
  • spy
  • whore

As to the etymology of guard, Etymonline says the follwing:

from Middle French garde "guardian, warden, keeper; watching, keeping, custody," from Old French garder "to keep, maintain, preserve, protect"

So I presume garde first had an abstract meaning, more like "the phaenomenon of guarding", and as in "be on your guard! en garde!" or "my guard" denoting the body of men that guard me; and then it also came to be used for a person doing guarding later.

It appears that English only dropped the -e from the French profession after borrowing the noun. Since -e is unstressed and often mute or even silent in French, it isn't very surprising that it should have fallen off. In fact, there are countless nouns in older English that dropped an -e. Cf. the (probably anistorical) trope ye olde [noun].

  • 3
    One who cooks is a cooker... I like that.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 0:36
  • 2
    Matching the etymology: You can say "you guard something", or you can say "you stand [as a] guard over something"- this seems more like the verb "to guard" came from the noun "a Guard", as opposed to the other way around. Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 8:35
  • 4
    Also: one who doctors is a doctor, one who bitches is a bitch, one who thieves is a thief, one who cheats is a cheat, one who jockeys is a jockey, one who teases is a tease, there are many, many examples of this sort of thing.
    – terdon
    Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 8:38
  • 3
    @GEdgar actually, the 'cooker' is a perfect example for '-er' indicating agency in general and not necessarily a (human) profession. Think 'blender', 'cash dispenser', 'lawn mower' etc.
    – crizzis
    Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 16:30
  • 2
    Oh, the whorer, the whorer!
    – pkr
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 20:30

With 'er' 'or' 'ist' suffixes you are usually dealing with an agent noun

From the Wikipedia link:

In linguistics, an agent noun (in Latin, nomen agentis) is a word that is derived from another word denoting an action, and that identifies an entity that does that action. For example, "driver" is an agent noun formed from the verb "drive".

So with agent nouns the verb comes first and the noun arises later. But in your example it's actually the other way round. The verb guard is derived from the noun. (Alternatively it was derived separately from the old French, but later chronologically, which would still explain why it doesn't fit the standard pattern.)

From the online etymology dictionary

guard (n.)

early 15c., "one who keeps watch, a body of soldiers," also "care, custody, guardianship," and the name of a part of a piece of armor, from Middle French garde "guardian, warden, keeper; watching, keeping, custody," from Old French garder "to keep, maintain, preserve, protect" (see guard (v.)).

guard (v.)

mid-15c., from guard (n.) or from Old French garder "to keep watch over, guard, protect, maintain, preserve" (corresponding to Old North French warder, see gu-), from Frankish *wardon, from Proto-Germanic *wardon "to guard" (from PIE root *wer- (3) "perceive, watch out for"). Italian guardare, Spanish guardar also are from Germanic. Related: Guarded; guarding.

Such a conversion process is seen by some linguists as a form of metonymy.

There's a very detailed article here from which I'll also lift their definition:

Metonymy is a cognitive process in which one conceptual entity" the vehicle" provides mental access to another conceptual entity" the target" within the same idealized cognitive models (Radden and Kovecses 1999, p.21).

In your case the noun denoting the agent of the action -- the guard -- is employed to denote the action itself. So 'guard' comes to mean what a guard does. A parallel example (from the above linked article) would be the noun father becoming the verb father as in 'he fathers several children'.

  • I don’t really think zero-derivation in English can be considered metonymy. It’s just that the old derivational suffixes which used to be employed disappeared over time when final syllables were lost due to apocope. Earlier on, the derivation would have been more overt. Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 23:36
  • Yes, it's not universally accepted. I've slightly changed the wording to reflect this. (And in the meantime plan to work out whose side I'm on.)
    – S Conroy
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 12:54

Many -er words for people do indeed derive from some other word such as a verb but many do not. The use of -r for people is extremely widespread in Indo-European languages but some of the most common clearly show that they are not just agents, but any kind of people, often not being derived from any other identifiable word: think of mother, father, brother, sister, daughter, with the first four of these at least clearly going back to Proto-Indo-European.

Across many languages we see a great variety in the vowel before the -r, which is why we have entrepreneur (from French), doctor (from Latin), scholar (from Latin). Other languages are even more varied. Consider mère (French for "mother"), sœur (French for "sister"), feirmeoir (Irish for "farmer"), maighstir (Gaelic for "master"). Doubtless there are other vowels used as well.

  • 1
    This doesn't actually answer the question of why guard does not have -er.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 13:39

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