The Grammarphobia Blog

Architectural criticism

Q: Do you think it’s acceptable to use “architect” as a verb, as in “The administrator should architect the software with users in mind”? In his blog, the author Seth Godin feels that it’s a valid term.

A: Yes, “architect” is a legitimate verb, though it’s one that we consider somewhat clunky and that only a few standard dictionaries recognize.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says it’s a transitive verb (one that requires a direct object) and means “to plan, organize, and bring to fruition.”

American Heritage describes the usage as informal, which means it’s generally seen in conversation or casual writing. The dictionary gives this example: “architected a web-based application.”

Seth Godin, an author of many marketing books and a founder of the community-website platform Squidoo, has used “architect” as a verb and has defended the usage on his blog.

In a 2006 post entitled “Is architect a verb?” Godin writes that he prefers “architect” to “design” when he wants “to describe the intentional arrangement of design elements to get a certain result.”

“Architecture, for me anyway, involves intention, game theory, systems thinking and relentless testing and improvement,” he says.

For example, he writes, “you can architect a business model or a pricing structure to make it far more effective at generating the behavior you’re looking for.”

That may be what the verb “architect” means to him, but a lot of other people don’t use it in that exact way.

Isn’t the whole point of language to communicate? We’ll stick with “design” or “create” or “build” or “conceive” or “develop” or … well … you get the idea.

Over the years, readers of the blog have complained to us about uses of “architect” that they found objectionable, but we haven’t written about the subject until now. The complaints fall roughly into three categories:

(1) The word is sometimes used loosely to refer to somebody who’s responsible for something bad: “Goebbels was the architect of the Nazi propaganda machine.” (Architects have grumbled to us about  this, but they might as well get used to it.)

(2) It’s often used in confusing ways: “We agree that conceptual development is incomplete without skill development, and we architected this experience accordingly.” Huh?

(3) It’s used as a verb, as in “Let’s architect a plan and present it next week.” But as we said above, “architect” is a legitimate verb.

We should add that the use of “architect” as a verb isn’t a recent phenomenon. The Oxford English Dictionary has written examples going back to the early 1800s.

The earliest example in the OED is from a July 23, 1818, letter that the poet John Keats wrote to his brother Thomas after visiting Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland.

Here’s how a poem in the letter describes the cave and its distinctive basalt columns: “This was architected thus / By the great Oceanus.”

When Keats published the poem as “Staffa” sometime before 1821, he altered the spelling and punctuation: “This was architectur’d thus / By the great Oceanus!”

As you can imagine, the verb “architect” is derived from the noun, which ultimately comes from the Latin architectus and the Greek arkhitekton, classical terms for a principal builder or craftsman.

The Greek roots are arkhi (first or superior) + tekton (builder).

When the noun entered English in the mid-1500s, the OED says, it referred to “a skilled professor of the art of building, whose business it is to prepare the plans of edifices, and exercise a general superintendence over the course of their erection.”

By the end of the 1500s, the noun was being used loosely or figuratively for someone who plans or contrives or constructs something.

We’ll end with a figurative example in which the Moor in Shakespeare’s 1594 tragedy Titus Andronicus is referred to as “Chiefe architect and plotter of these woes.”

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