The Grammarphobia Blog

Is “civilised” more “civilized”?

Q: We on this scepter’d isle wonder why you Yanks are so intent on replacing the s’s in our civilised spellings with z’s.

A: Not so fast! Are verbs ending in “-ise” really better bred than those ending in “-ize”?

The Oxford English Dictionary, which ought to know, says the “-ize” ending is actually the traditional one and the only proper one.

The first of these words to enter English, “baptize,” appeared in the 13th century with its z intact, and was later joined by “authorize” (14th century), “organize” (15th), “characterize” (16th), “civilize” (17th), and many others.

As we point out in our book about language myths, Origins of the Specious, the “-ise” spellings weren’t used much until the 18th century or later.

Whodunit? The culprits were Francophiles enamored of French verbs like civiliser, dramatiser, organiser, and so on.

But, as the OED says, “there is no reason why in English the special French spelling should be followed.”

Spelling aside, many language authorities have criticized the practice of creating new verbs by tacking the suffix “-ize” (or “-ise,” if you prefer) on nouns, adjectives, and proper names.

Critics jumped on Noah Webster, for example, when he included “demoralize,” “Americanize,” and “deputize” in his 1828 dictionary.

Other words condemned in the 19th and 20th centuries were “jeopardize,” “accessorize,” “burglarize,” “prioritize,” “finalize,” and “theorize,”  according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

“If you are one of those persons of tender sensibilities whose nerves are grated by -ize, you would be better off learning to live with the problem,” Merriam-Webster’s says.

We agree that “-ize” words aren’t going away, but that doesn’t mean we have to use all of them, especially not the ones that irritate our tender sensibilities (“colorize,” “finalize,” “prioritize,” etc.).

With that off our chests, we’ll give M-W’s editors the final word.

Although many “-ize” coinages don’t last (Truman Capote’s “artificialize,” Mary McCarthy’s “sonorized”), the usage guide says, “Who today blinks at popularize, formalize, economize, legalize, politicize, terrorize, or capitalize?”

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