The Grammarphobia Blog

Is “legitimize” legitimate?

Q: I must protest the use of the word “legitimize.” I know, I’m a few decades too late, but I mourn the loss of the verb “legitimate.” If we must have an “-ize” verb (and I would rather not), I have mustered the temerity to offer my own substitute: “legitimatize.”

A: The verb “legitimate” (to make legitimate) is indeed becoming scarce in common usage, but there’s a good reason.

The verb and the adjective “legitimate” are easy to tell apart in speech because the last syllable is pronounced differently (MATE for the verb, MUT for the adjective). But in writing, the two are identical and can be told apart only from the context.

In our opinion, the development of “legitimize” was inevitable, and we see no reason to avoid it. While many people complain about new words ending with “ize,” there’s nothing unusual about this verb-forming suffix.

We agree that some “-ize” verbs are annoying and deserve to die a natural death (“credibilize” and “respectabilize” spring to mind).

But this way of forming new verbs, which was handed down from the Greeks, has given us valuable words too, words that will last, like “baptize,” “jeopardize,” “mesmerize,” “organize,” “civilize,” and scores of others.

Our vocabulary would shrink considerably if we tried to avoid all verbs with the “-ize” ending or its chiefly British sibling
“-ise.”

By the way, the “-ize” ending is the more traditional, as we pointed out in a posting in 2011. We also wrote about these suffixes in 2012.

Now, let’s take a closer look at “legitimize” and “legitimatize.”

The verb you protest, “legitimize,” and the substitute you suggest, “legitimatize,” came into the language in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

“Legitimatize,” formed from the adjective “legitimate” plus the suffix, was first recorded in 1791, the OED says. The shorter (and, we think, the preferable) “legitimize” followed in 1848.

As for the two words written as “legitimate,” the adjective came first. Its source is the medieval Latin word legitimatus, past participle of legitimare (to make lawful).

An early form of the adjective, “legitime,” was recorded in 1393, but is now obsolete, the OED says.

The modern form of the word, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, showed up sometime before 1464 (as “legitimat”). It originally meant “lawfully begotten” and later “lawful,” Chambers says.

The verb “legitimate” was first recorded in 1530, according to the OED, and was modeled after the adjective. Its meaning, the OED says, is “to render lawful or legal,” or “to authorize by legal enactment.”

You didn’t ask, but in case you’re interested in “legit,” a 19th-century coinage, we had a posting on the subject a couple of years ago.

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