Etymology Usage

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”?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, which ought to know, 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, many others.

So the “-ize” spelling is historically correct. 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 who introduced “-ise” into English were Francophiles enamored of French verbs like civiliser, dramatiser, organiser, and so on.

As the OED explains in an etymology note, “the suffix itself, whatever the element to which it is added, is in its origin the Greek -ιζειν [-izein], Latin -izāre; and, as the pronunciation is also with z, there is no reason why in English the special French spelling should be followed, in opposition to that which is at once etymological and phonetic. In this Dictionary the termination is uniformly written -ize.”

Spelling aside, some language authorities have criticized the practice of creating new verbs by tacking an “-ize” (or “-ise,” if you prefer) onto 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 those that irritate our tender sensibilities (“circularize,” “operationalize,” “archaize,” “parodize,” “concretize,” 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?” Not to mention “baptize”!

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