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Why is the noun form of pray "prayer"?

Typically, -er is tacked onto the end of verbs to denote a person or thing that does the verb. Hence, print(er), compute(r), write(r), watch(er), do(er), etc.

Alternatively, the noun of the verb to denote the verb itself is often the same base form: address, change, stare, prey, etc.

However, pray(er) does not follow either of the above two trends. Prayer does not denote a person who prays; and pray cannot be interpreted as a noun.

Checking the etymology of both pray and prayer on etymonline.com, they both start at the 13th-c. French verb prier, but with no further indication of why one acquired the -er ending.

Is prayer unique in this sense? Or are there other nouns with an -er ending that similarly don't follow the trend of denoting person or thing that [verbs]?

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  • 2
    Note that "prayer" is not pronounced "pray-er". It's more like "prair". All your other "-er" examples are pronounced [verb] + "-er". Spelling usually comes after pronunciation.
    – CJ Dennis
    Mar 9 '20 at 3:18
  • 6
    Following the pronunciation, not the conventional spelling, the relationship pray/prayer is like that of lay/lair (cf. layer) or flay/flair. That is, there is no morphological relationship. Moral: look at pronunciations, not spellings. Spellings can be what 17th c. printers decided on, for unknown reasons.
    – Greg Lee
    Mar 9 '20 at 4:20
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    According to Wiktionary, lay/lair are related and flay/flair are not. I would guess lay/lair are more remote relatives than pray/prayer but I don't know. The French words are prier/prière, where -er is a morpheme that can easily be dropped when it gets to English, so I wouldn't be surprised if that's how it happened. Other English word pairs that might help are dine/dinner, din/dinner, and sup/supper. I must be hungry.
    – Jetpack
    Mar 9 '20 at 13:38
  • This becomes a problem when you are trying to say, "Someone who prays".
    – Tharpa
    Mar 9 '20 at 17:33
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    Great question. The more difficult (or more linguistically challenging) question would be: Even though "pray" and "prayer" have similar etymons, why the noun "prayer" ends with -er but the verb "pray" doesn't? The etymon of pray: French preier. The etymon of prayer: French praere. It might be related to the leveling in French and how the leveled forms influenced English (with its pronunciation). OED has this note in the etymology of the verb pray: "In Old French, Middle French, French prier the stem vowel shows levelling to that of the stem-stressed forms, il prie , etc."
    – 0..
    Mar 9 '20 at 19:54
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It ends in ‑er because it mostly started out that way, and that aspect of it did not change.

The OED says that this word was initially a direct borrowing from French, and that its etymon was the Norman French word praere. They attest an incredible number of variant spellings for this word in Middle English. Just take a gander at how many different historical approaches there have been! As Greg Lee mentioned in comments, the spelling we now use today ended up being the luck of whatever of those super-many spellings in manuscript form that the early printers decided on for printing.

ME praeyer, ME praior, ME praiyer, ME prayeer, ME prayeere, ME prayȝer, ME prayur, ME preere, ME preȝeer, ME preȝere, ME preieere, ME preier, ME preiere, ME preiȝer, ME preiȝere, ME preire, ME prer, ME preyeer, ME preyer, ME preyere, ME preyȝer, ME preyȝere, ME preyor, ME preyour, ME preyowr, ME preyur, ME priere, ME–15 praer, ME–15 praiere, ME–15 praire, ME–15 prayere, ME–15 prayor, ME–15 prayour, ME–16 praier, ME–16 prayr, ME– prayer, 15 prayar, 15 preyare, 15–16 prair, 15–16 prayre, 16 praijer, 16 prai’r, 16–17 pray’r, 18– prar (English regional (Shropshire)); U.S. regional (southern and south Midland) 18 pra’r, 18– prar, 19– praar; Scottish pre-17 praer, pre-17 praier, pre-17 praiere, pre-17 praire, pre-17 prayair, pre-17 prayar, pre-17 prayare, pre-17 prayeir, pre-17 prayere, pre-17 prayier, pre-17 prayour, pre-17 prear, pre-17 preir, pre-17 preyer, pre-17 preyere, pre-17 preyir, pre-17 priar, pre-17 pryer, pre-17 17– prayer. N.E.D. (1907) also records forms ME prair, ME preir.

Sure was convenient when people actually spelled things the way they said them, now wasn’t it? So, do you like any of those better than the one we use today? :) You can be sure that whichever one you pick, the fellow in the next village will have chosen another one. Happy days.

They list as its etymology the following:

Anglo-Norman praere, praiere, preire, Anglo-Norman and Old French preere, Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French priere, Old French preiere entreaty, petition, request, act of praying, words uttered when praying (first half of the 12th cent.; French prière) < post-classical Latin precaria (see precary n.); the sense development to ‘entreaty, request in general’ may already have occurred in post-classical Latin; compare post-classical Latin precaria call to prayer (1305 in a French source). Compare Old Occitan preguiera  (c1200), pregueira (13th cent. in an isolated attestation), pregaria, Italian preghiera (a1250), Spanish plegaria (13th cent.), Catalan pregària  (13th cent.). Compare precary n.

And give the following etymological note:

Monosyllabic pronunciations are suggested by metre from c1600, although disyllabic pronunciations are occasionally recorded in verse until at least the mid 17th cent.

So we’ve had the one-syllable pronunciation in poetry since the end of the 15th century, but the two-syllable version could nonetheless still be found through at least the middle of the 17th century, if not later.

That means that the two-syllable pronunciation was still being used when the printed form got frozen forever.

Never Forget

Remember that English spelling today represents only Middle English pronunciation from half a millennium past, not that of current English. Spellings were locked down long ago, just as soon as we starting setting words in lead — meaning, in movable type. That froze everything. Pronunciations all changed dramatically after that, and often very soon afterwards during the Great Vowel Shift, but by then it was much too late to change those frozen spellings.

Plus you can indeed still have a two-syllable prayer, meaning one who prays.

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  • Would it be possible to contrast that analysis with the verb "pray"? I can accept that "prayer" just happened to enter the language as-is, modulo spelling, but that doesn't quite account for the difference between "pray" and "prayer". (Conversely, should my original question have been why the /r/ was dropped in the verb form?)
    – Seralt
    Mar 9 '20 at 6:12
  • @Seralt Not sure why this is, but it seems that dropping the -er suffix in verbs is a pattern when transitioning from French to English. You see the same thing in "continue", "demand", and "pass", for example. In modern French, the "r" is silent in the -er suffix, so there might be less significance to the "r", allowing it to be dropped. Not sure about Old French, though.
    – Shmeeku
    Mar 9 '20 at 15:37
  • Also don't forget that in American spelling often represents Noah Webster's choices, although this particular word predates him.
    – Barmar
    Mar 9 '20 at 17:11
  • the inflected forms were regularly without -er, even in Latin, e.g. facere "to make, do", facio "I make, do"
    – vectory
    Mar 15 '20 at 15:09
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French built infinitives with -er and derived participles and nominalized nouns from the infinitive. This was borrowed as is into English to form a noun. The English verb must have been backformed from the noun; Middle English simplified verbs anyway. It helps that -er is a regular nominal suffix, notwithstanding the further etymology.

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