The Grammarphobia Blog

Private parts

Q: Although “public” and “private” are opposites, “publicize” and “privatize” aren’t. Is there any particular reason the forms developed such different meanings? And what would be the opposite of “privatize” in the business sense?

A: You’re right that the adjectives “public” and “private” have generally described opposite things since they showed up in English in the late 14th century.

Here, for example, is the first definition of “public” in the Oxford English Dictionary: “In general, and in most of the senses, the opposite of private adj.”

And this is the earliest definition of “private” in the OED: “Restricted to one person or a few persons as opposed to the wider community; largely in opposition to public.”

The word “public” comes from the Latin publicus (pertaining to the people), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

It’s usually seen in the sense of affecting, open to, maintained by, or devoted to all the people or the community as a whole.

The word “private,” Chambers says, is derived from the Latin privatus (apart from public life, deprived of office, belonging to an individual).

The verbs you’ve ask about—“publicize” and “privatize”—are relative newcomers. The first didn’t show up until the 19th century and the second until the 20th century.

The word “publicize,” in its earliest sense, meant “to bring to public notice or attention; to make generally known,” according to the OED.

But it later took on another meaning that we’re all familiar with: “to give out information about (a product, person, etc.) for advertising or promotional purposes.”

Both of those meanings reflect the use of the adjective “public” in the sense of affecting or open to the general public.

The verb “privatize” also reflected its older adjective when it entered English.

In the earliest citations for “privatize” in the OED, the verb meant “to make personal or private; to regard or treat in terms of the individual, rather than the wider community.”

Here’s a 1940 example from the American Sociological Review: “We cultivate a lack of confidence towards those who are our partners and our leaders, and we privatize our existence.”

But in the 1950s, according to OED citations, the verb took on a new meaning, the one that has caught your attention: “to transfer (a business, industry, or service) from public to private ownership and control.”

The OED doesn’t offer a reason for the evolution of “privatize,” but it directs readers to its entries for the somewhat earlier verbal noun “privatizing” (1932) and verb “reprivatize” (1937).

The word “privatizing” needs no explanation, but “reprivatize” is defined this way: “to return (a previously nationalized business, industry, or service) to private ownership and control.”

In that definition, you can find an answer to your question about the opposite of “privatize.”

Yes, one possibility is “nationalize,” a word that entered English in the late 18th century, when it meant to give something a national character.

In the mid-19th century, though, “nationalize” took on its sense of “to bring (land, property, an industry, etc.) under state control or ownership.”

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