The Grammarphobia Blog

Getting down to essentials

Q: I recently encountered the verb “essentialize” in an academic monograph: “the term Hinduism is often essentialized.” The meaning here eludes me. (I’ve read what Pat has to say in Woe Is I about “-ize” endings.)

A: The verb “essentialize” means to express something in its essential form—that is, to reduce it to its essentials.

So the author of that monograph is apparently saying that the term “Hinduism” is often reduced to its essentials. In other words, the word “Hinduism” is used to refer to the essence of the religion.

If that is indeed what the author intended, we think he should have said so, even if it meant using a few more words.

But academic writing has its own rules and they don’t include simplicity. Stewart once helped a friend, a French meteorologist, translate a paper into English for a scientific journal.

When Stewart had finished, the English was so readable that the journal wouldn’t publish the paper until it was rewritten in academic jargon. Live and learn!

You can find “essentialize” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and other standard dictionaries.

It’s not all that popular outside academese and bureaucratese (only about 60,000 hits on Google), but “essentialize” has been around in one form or another since the 17th century.

When it entered English in the mid-1600s, it meant “to give essence or being” to someone or something. A noun that showed up at the same time, “essentializer,” referred to the “first fabricator, perfector, essentialiser of Beings or he that gives Essence to Beings.”

The sense of the word that’s apparently being used in the monograph you read (“to formulate in essential form, to express the essential form of”) didn’t show up until the early 20th century, according to the OED.

This 1922 example from the Times Literary Supplement refers to Dante: “A poet in whom the manifold passions and cultural movements of his time were essentialized and ennobled into the highest poetical utterance.”

Many English words have been formed by adding “-ize” to the end of nouns and adjectives. This is a legitimate practice, but it can get out of hand. Here’s an excerpt from Pat’s comments about it in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I:

“For centuries, we’ve been creating instant verbs in English simply by adding ize to nouns (demon demonize, for instance) or to adjectives (brutal brutalize). The ancient Greeks were the ones who gave us the idea. The ize ending (often ise in British spellings) has given us loads of useful words (agonize, burglarize, fantasize, mesmerize, pasteurize, pulverize). It’s just as legitimate to add ize to the end of a word as it is to add un or pre to the beginning.

“Yet there can be too much of a good thing, and that’s what has happened with ize. Verbs should be lively little devils, and just adding ize to a word doesn’t give it life. Fortunately, many recent horrors (credibilize, permanentize, respectabilize, uniformize) didn’t catch on. But some lifeless specimens have slipped into the language, among them colorize, prioritize, and finalize, and they’re probably going to be around for a while.”

Our advice: If you don’t like ’em, don’t use ’em. Maybe they’ll go away.

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