My friend George recently told me that his friend’s mother, who watches the BBC on a regular basis, uses the word “raper” instead of “rapist.” At first I scoffed at this revelation, but upon further reflection I started to wonder: Why do we say “rapist” instead of “raper?” Do we say “murderist” instead of “murderer” or “killist” instead of “killer?”
A quick glance at the etymology yields some insights. The word “rape” is derived from the Latin word rapere, which means “to seize”; by contrast, “murder” comes from the Old English word myrðrian and “kill” from the Old English word cwellan. I’d imagine that if I scratched around further, I’d probably find similar examples to support this thesis, although it would likely face maddening inconsistencies as well. Then again, we tinker with and alter the English language in countless ways every day. Obviously some cultures saw fit to simply refer to it as “raper” while others believed “rapist” sounded more appropriate. Why?
I don’t have an answer, but I do have a word count to fill, so I’ll press on with this observation. Regardless of which term makes the most etymological sense, there is something off-putting about adding an ‘-ist’ suffix to a terrible crime. Sure we do it with lesser offenses (“plagiarist” rolls off the tongue more easily than “plagiarer”), but when you tack it on to something as heinous as rape, it makes the crime sound almost distinguished by comparison. An ‘-er’ suffix merely implies that you have committed the action in question – a murderer has murdered, a robber has robbed, that sort of thing – but ‘-ist’ almost comes across as an accomplishment. Think about it: Would you have more respect for a “murderer” or a “murderist?” I might watch a one-hour episode of a True Crime show about a murderer, but I’d watch a whole damn TV series about someone worthy of the title “murderist.” Am I right?
Probably not. I’m probably putting too much thought into this. Then again, language does matter. The words we choose, or even the letters we include or exclude in those words, impact our consciousness. Maybe it’s not the biggest deal in the world that we say “rapist” instead of “raper,” but I suspect it probably does subtly effect how we view the nature of that particular crime… and, more specifically, the perpetrators of said crime. If it wasn’t for the fear of being viewed as an uncultured boor, I would revise my own use of the language and say “raper.” But, of course, I am a slave to appearances, so I dare not cross that linguistic threshold.
Instead I will close by noting that, at some future date, I would like to see a verbally dexterous comedy play fast and loose with switching out the ‘-ists’ and ‘-ers’ in these terms. Maybe a farce about a serial killist who spends his days as a truck drivist and, to conceal evidence of his crimes, burns down the buildings where they take place. As a result, he is eventually caught and charged with being an arsoner… Come to think of it, why do we say “arsonist” instead of “arsoner?”
You know what, I’m not going to pull on that thread.