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September 13th, 2006

Bring and take / rapist vs. raper

by Barbara Wallraff

Penny Sweet, of Hulls Cove, Maine, writes: “There is an ongoing dispute in my house regarding ‘bring’ and ‘take.’ Is there a right choice when saying, ‘I will bring/take a cake to the fair’?”

Dear Penny: The simple, traditional rule is that “bring” means toward the person speaking and “take” means away from that person. Often this rule is all that’s needed -- as in, “Waiter, will you please take away this dirty plate and bring me a slice of cake for dessert?”

But when we’re talking about something that someone else is bringing or taking somewhere, the rule doesn’t do us any good. For instance, whatever you’re doing with that cake for the fair, it’s not coming to me or going away from me -- so what’s the difference whether I say you’re “bringing” or “taking” it? In situations like this, “bring” means toward whatever I, the person speaking, am focusing on, and “take” means away from that focus. So if I were mainly thinking about the fair, I’d say “bring”: “Everyone loved the cake you brought to the fair last year. This year, will you bring another one?” Actually, though, I’ve been focusing on you. So I should say, “How nice of you to take a cake to the fair.”

Because the difference between the two words can be so subjective, sometimes it hardly matters which you choose. Only when pretty clearly someone is “bringing” something away from whomever or whatever, or “taking” something toward, is either word truly wrong.

Kingsley Sears, of Warren, Mich., writes: “Why do we call someone who rapes a ‘rapist,’ as though his act involved some skill or talent comparable with that of an artist or a therapist? We say ‘murderer’ and ‘robber,’ not ‘murderist’ and ‘robbist.’ A lyricist referred to them as ‘rapers,’ and I appreciated that. Is there a reason for this peculiar word?”

Dear Kingsley: Right you are that the usual word is “rapist,” not “raper.” Who would ever have thought I’d need to remind anyone of that? While searching online for the song lyrics you have in mind, though, I found “raper” in various (unpleasant) lyrics. For instance, a song by a band from Norway has the title “Mind Raper.”

But enough of that. Of course you’re right, too, that the relationship between artists and art, and therapists and therapy, involves skill or talent. However, the same is true of painters and painting, teachers and teaching, and many other kinds of “-er” workers and their work. (The “-or” ending of words like “sculptor” and “doctor” is a variant.)

Originally, the difference between an “-ist” person and an “-er” person depended on whether the word for what the person did came from Greek or Latin (in which case the ending was “-ist”) or from Old English or a Germanic language (the ending was “-er”). Sure enough, “rape” came from Latin, or at least from a language based on it, and “murder” came from Old English. Let’s not read anything cultural into that.

By now the distinction has grown blurry, and we even have a few pairs of words with slightly different meanings in which each word has one of the endings -- for example, “copier” and “copyist.” In fact, some dictionaries include “raper” as a synonym of “rapist.” But at least the difference between “-ist” and “-er” words isn’t completely arbitrary, and there’s a reason “rapist” is the traditional form.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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