Chapter 10: Turning Latin Verbs into Latin Nouns

§73. The Perfect Participle Base + suffix -OR as Agent Noun

In the beginning of Chapter 3 (§18), we identified a group of Latin 3rd declension forms in -or as AGENT NOUNS. They comprise the easiest and most obvious group of Latin verb derivatives in English, since they almost always keep their original Latin form. An AGENT (< agere, actus) is a person “doing” something—here, performing whatever action is expressed in the verb base. From spectare, spectatus (“watch”), Latin derived the agent noun spectator, “watcher,” “one who watches,” a word that is used with exactly that form and meaning in English. From audire, auditus, came auditor, “hearer.” The verb agere itself had an obvious agent noun—actor, “doer.” If docēre, doctus meant “teach,” then doctor must have meant “teacher” (whatever its customary meaning today). These words could not be any simpler in form: perfect participle base plus suffix -or.

From the English equivalents given in the last paragraph, you will see that our Germanic equivalent to Latin -or is -er. These cognate suffixes are so close as to become rather confusing in spelling and usage. As a general rule, English uses the -or form for pure Latin derivatives and adds -er to native Germanic verbs or Latin verbs that have been modified in French transmission. Therefore the Latin derivative victor (vincere, victus, “conquer”) stands alongside the Germanic winner. (But we might have to consult a dictionary to confirm that conqueror is spelled -or, since it violates the rule just stated!) The rule is fairly reliable, although there are disputed forms like adviser and advisor.

In the following list of further examples, the agent noun is shown in Latin only. There is no need to repeat that form in English, since the English derivative will be identical.

narrare, narratus, “tell” narrator
creare, creatus, “create” creator
curare, curatus, “care for” curator
secare, sectus, “cut” sector
monēre, monitus, “advise” monitor
movēre, motus, “move” motor
pascere, pastus, “feed,” “tend” pastor
facere, factus, “make,” “do” factor
capere, captus, “take” captor
rapere, raptus, “seize” raptor
sentire, sensus, “feel” sensor

Notice that we have met a number of pairs like captor/capture, pastor/pasture and raptor/rapture. Sculptor is the person who carves (sculpere, sculptus), while sculpture is the act of carving or the product of the act. Latin had a corresponding pair of nouns, pictor/pictura (< pingere, pictus, “paint”); but pictor got displaced by the Anglo-French painter, which actually comes from pingere. (Yet English still has pictorial.)

The forms shown above are all taken from simple verbs; Latin could form even more interesting agent nouns when it started adding prefixes. Try working out the etymological meanings of the following English words (e.g., protractor = “one who drags forward”):

conspirator, depositor, interceptor, projector, transgressor, refractor.


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Greek and Latin Roots: Part I - Latin Copyright © 2016 by Peter Smith (Estate) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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