Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

The Suffix -ery

Last month William Hupy asked about an English suffix that he has spotted in a Romance language, too: “What’s up with the suffix -ery, as in livery and grocery? I detect a similar origin with the Spanish cafeteria, farmacia, etc.”

The English suffix -ery is an adaptation of the Latin -oria via the French -erie suffix, usually meaning “place of”: bakery, eatery, brewery, nunnery. However, it sometimes converts a noun into the quality that identifies the noun: tomfooley, knavery, savagery.

If we borrow these words directly from Latin, the suffix is -ory: laboratory, observatory, dormitory, depository, a suffix more frequently used to convert verbs into adjectives: congratulatory, conciliatory, exclamatory. But French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish are Latin as spoken in various parts of Europe today, so they will contain the same suffixes as those suffixes have changed over the years. English has borrowed liberally from all these languages, but especially Latin and French.

Livery and grocery do not contain this suffix. Livery comes from a French word meaning “delivery-boy” while grocery is simply the suffix -y added to grocer. The latter word has an interesting history. It comes from grossus “large, gross” with the suffix -arius, a personal suffix meaning “someone who (does something)”. The original word grossarius meant “wholesaler”, i.e. someone selling on a large scale (by the gross), as opposed to a small-scale retailer.

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