“Whoever organises the hen party must budget carefully, and ensure that all the costs – including the bride’s share – are divided between the attendees” – Debrett’s advice on the etiquette of hen parties, Summer 2022. 

….”after the event [a talk at a literature festival], we made our way to the signing table where half-a-dozen or so attendees were waiting for the author” – letter to The Critic, Aug/Sept 2022.

We often read of events at which those present are called “attendees”, and perhaps we’ve even used the word ourselves. But who or what, exactly, is meant by an “attendee”? The word-ending “-ee” comes from French, where “-ée” is the feminine of any adjective terminating in “é”, the past participle of many verbs having the infinitive “-er”.  So “-ee” is the word-ending of an adjective that denotes the object or recipient of an action. “Divorcee” is perhaps the most familiar example: it refers to a (female) person who is divorced, that is to say no longer married, and comes directly from the French “divorcée”, which takes as read that there exists also another person, or process, that actively performs the divorcing. 

We may compare “invitee”, which again transliterates a French word. Another term in very common use, also coming straight from the French, is “employee” where the active/passive component is clear (employer/employee). These words seem to supply the pattern on which “attendee” is formed, although “attendee” has no French equivalent. And we must note that there is no distinction between masculine and feminine endings: in English, all such words end in double-e.  

The word “attendee” didn’t appear in 20th-century editions of the OED as a derivative of the verb “to attend”, but Chambers’ 1988 edition gives it simply as a synonym for “attender”, that is to say, a person who is present at an event or occasion. It further elaborates that the event in question is an organised academic or political meeting. The term is now more widely applied and seems to have replaced “attendant”, which in the past had much the same sense, but which is now used specifically to apply to someone who performs a role in assisting or accompanying another person or group of people. (Though it can also be used as an adjective, as in “Brexit and its attendant problems”, where no particular function is implied, only the relationship.)

“Attendee” is well established now, although of fairly recent origin, and having elbowed “attendant” out of the way, does a useful job. But all said and done, “attendee” has the ring of a nonsense word, and sounds to my ears faintly comic. This is precisely because its etymology is bogus. It seems to have been concocted illogically on the lines of other words with which it has no connection, and we might start to look for other terms that have been invented on the same principle. For instance, we will (jokingly) speak of a “murderee”, meaning someone who has been murdered. I strongly suspect that “attendee” began as a joke, too, though I can’t find any acknowledgement of that in the dictionaries I’ve searched.