The Grammarphobia Blog

Are you feeling pressurized?

Q: To “pressurize” is, to my mind, quite different from to “pressure.” The former means to inflate something and the latter to put pressure on someone. So why does our inflationary language permit “pressurize” to have both meanings?

A: Well, “pressurize” isn’t a word we’d use in place of “put pressure on” or simply “pressure.” It’s one of those words that seem unnecessary, like “orientate” in place of “orient,” or “preventative” in place of “preventive.”

But to “pressurize” in the nonphysical sense—to put pressure on—is a legitimate usage, one recognized in some standard dictionaries though perhaps not fully accepted in formal American English.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for instance, labels the verb “informal” when it means “to subject to psychological, political, or other nonphysical pressure,” as in “pressurized the government to enact reforms.”

And the verb is listed as a British usage (often spelled “pressurise”) in three standard dictionaries from the UK: Oxford Dictionaries Online and the online Collins and Macmillan dictionaries.

The verb “pressurize” came along in the 20th century with a purely physical meaning, to manipulate atmospheric pressure in a closed space. And before long, it was being used in the sense you’re talking about, to manipulate a person—that is, to “put pressure on” or “pressure” someone.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines the physical sense as “to produce or maintain pressure artificially in (a container, closed space, etc.); spec. to maintain a close-to-normal atmospheric pressure in (an aircraft cabin) at high altitudes.”

The earliest use we’ve found is from the late 1930s: “Without pressurized cabins, planes now fly as high as 14,000 feet; with them, passengers will feel no discomfort at DC-4’s service ceiling, 22,900 feet.” (From Time magazine, May 23, 1938. Here the verb is in the form of a participial adjective.)

The OED’s first citation also uses the verb “pressurize” adjectivally: “The pressurizing mechanism maintains ideal weather within this passenger chamber.” (From an Illinois newspaper, the Freeport Journal-Standard, March 19, 1940.)

The dictionary’s next citation is from a 1944 issue of the journal Aeronautics: “The fuselage will be pressurized so that at all altitudes cabin conditions will be equivalent to a height of 8,000 ft.”

Soon “pressurize” was being used in a more personal sense. The OED defines this as “to subject to moral, psychological, or other non-physical pressure; to put pressure on; to coerce, influence, or urge.”

This is the dictionary’s earliest citation: “Thus, selective service continues to ‘pressurize’ recalcitrant military unfits into war plants.” (From an Ohio newspaper, the Lima News, Jan. 17, 1945.)

And this is the most recent: “Zia was also pressurized by the United States to roll back the nuclear weapons programme.” (From a 2002 book, The Nuclearization of South Asia, by Kamal Matinuddin.)

However, we’ve found an outlier, a rare example from the 1880s: “If they can wheedle or pressurise the rackrenters into doing what the Lansdownes and Lismores have found it necessary to do, they shall have our hearty good will in the operation.” (From an article about Irish politics, published in the Freeman’s Journal in Sydney, Australia, Jan. 15, 1887.)

We’ll disregard that flash in the pan, and say that for all practical purposes this nonphysical use of “pressurize” was born in the mid-20th century.

As far as we can tell, it’s not a common US usage. In news items, it mostly appears in articles from other English-speaking countries. Most Americans apparently use “pressure” or “put pressure on” when they mean to press, urge, or exert influence on.

The OED discusses the phrase “put pressure on” within its entry for the noun “pressure” as used in the sense of coercion, influence, or psychological force.

As Oxford says, “to put (also bring, exert) pressure on” means “to urge or press strongly or coercively,” or “to apply influence or psychological force.” And a similar phrase, “to bring pressure to bear,” means “to exert influence to a specific end, esp. on a person or thing.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for these phrases is from a 19th-century American newspaper: “The fleet going to the waters of an allied power, not for the purpose of injuring it, or putting any pressure on it, but on the contrary, to be ready to assist that power should it desire.” (The New-York Daily Times, Aug. 4, 1853.)

The earliest example of the “bring pressure to bear” version is from the other side of the Atlantic: “Some pressure had evidently been brought to bear.” (From a letter written by Sir William Hardman on April 21, 1864.)

The dictionary also has examples of variant phrases that mean the same thing, “bring pressure on” (1875) and “exert pressure on” (1961).

To clarify this use of “pressure,” perhaps we should begin with the word that started it all—the noun “press,” meaning a device for compressing, crushing, and so on.

This noun entered late Old English before the Norman Conquest as presse, an early borrowing from French. And in its earliest appearance, in a document that scholars have dated from the late 10th to early 11th century, the word meant a device for stretching and smoothing cloth.

Here’s the OED citation, from a partial list of the tools and machinery used in making textiles: “flexlinan, spinle, reol, gearnwindan, stodlan, lorgas, presse, pihten.” The list is from an Old English manuscript known as the Gerefa, outlining the duties of a gerefa, or reeve, a word that here refers to the steward or manager of an estate.

Those terms can be translated and explained as “flax lines” (for hanging spun flax), “spindle,” “reel” (or bobbin), “yarn winders,” “uprights” (for a vertical loom), “heddle rods” (allowing the weaver to insert the weft threads), “press” (for stretching and smoothing finished cloth), “comb-beater” (for compacting the weft threads).

Our explanation of those Old English terms comes from R. G. Poole’s article “The Textile Inventory in the Old English Gerefa,” published in the Review of English Studies, November 1989.

In later use, the noun “press” had many other meanings related to the exertion of a steady force or a heavy weight.

Instruments called “presses,” according to OED citations, were used in squeezing grapes and olives (circa 1390); in printing and engraving (1535); in torturing prisoners (1742); and in preserving plant specimens (1776).

Other nouns developed in turn, as in the use of “press” to mean a publisher (1579) and print journalism in general (1649).

The verb “press” came after the noun. It first appeared in Middle English around 1330 and had “multiple origins,” the OED says.

The verb was partly derived from the earlier English noun, the dictionary says, but it was also borrowed partly from the French verb presser (to torment, torture, squeeze, harass, crowd) and from the Latin verb pressāre (to exert pressure on, weigh down, press together, squeeze, suppress).

Since the Middle Ages, the English verb has had both literal and figurative meanings—to physically or mentally push, squeeze, crowd, compress, and so on.

For example, “press” in the sense of to bear down (1300s) gave us the adjective “hard-pressed.” Originally it had only the literal sense, firmly compacted (“harde pressed matter,” 1562). But the 18th century brought the figurative meaning: strained or in difficulty (“hard-press’d Virtue,” 1702; “hard pressed to defend themselves,” 1747).

This brings us to the noun “pressure,” which came into English in the late 1300s and originally meant physical pain or discomfort.

In the OED’s earliest example, from the Wycliffe Bible of 1384, “pressure” refers to the pains of childbirth: “Whanne sche hath borun a sone, now sche thenkith not on the pressure or charge for ioye” (“When she has borne a son, she no longer thinks of the pain and inconvenience because of the joy”).

Very soon, “pressure” came to mean “mental oppression or affliction; the burden of grief, troubles, etc.,” the dictionary says.

The earliest Oxford example is from The Imitation of Christ, an English translation in the late 1400s of the Latin devotional by Thomas à Kempis: “Þy grace … is … liȝt of þe herte, þe solace of pressure” (“Thy grace … is … light of the heart, the comfort for affliction”).

Then later, in the mid-1600s, “pressure” came to mean a state of difficulty (as in “financial pressure”). This, the OED says, led to the current meaning of “an external force or difficulty causing a person stress or tension,” and hence “a strain, a stress.” Here are a pair of the dictionary’s early and late examples:

“Now is the Time to relieve the poor Farmers, that they may recover their past Losses, and be free from the like Pressures for the future.” (From a British journal, the Landlord’s Companion, 1742.)

“Not that they do not want freedom; but it brings pressures and choices with which they find it hard to cope.” (The Times, London, March 30, 1976.)

The “pressure” that’s meant in the phrase “put pressure on” is the kind that comes from people and not from circumstances. The OED defines it this way: “Psychological or moral influence, esp. of a constraining or oppressive kind,” as in “coercion, persuasion, or dissuasion.”

The earliest recorded use of this sense of “pressure” is from an essay by Francis Bacon (1625), which mentions “pressure of Consciences.”

And the word still has that meaning. This is the OED’s most recent example: “An esthetic judgment can be changed, or confirmed, only under renewed contact with the work of art in question, not through reflection or under the pressure of argument.” (From the posthumously published Homemade Esthetics, 1999, by the art critic Clement Greenberg, who died in 1994.)

The latecomer here is the verb “pressure,” which appeared in the early 20th century and means “to apply pressure to, esp. to coerce or persuade by applying psychological or moral pressure,” the OED says.

Oxford’s earliest example is from Debates of the House of Commons of Canada (1911): “Extreme protection brought the formation of gigantic trusts, which pressured the consumers, who are now in open revolt against that regime.”

In addition, “to pressure” can mean “to press or agitate” for something (first used this way in 1922), or “to gain through the application of pressure” (1944), as in to “pressure” a settlement.

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