The Grammarphobia Blog

Is ‘deprioritize’ a priority?

Q: Here’s a hideous new word that I saw a few days ago: “deprioritize.” Let’s deprioritize it.

A: We wouldn’t describe either “prioritize” or “deprioritize” as lexical beauties, but speakers of bureaucratese seem to find them handy.

Both terms are relatively new. “Prioritize” showed up in writing in the 1950s and “deprioritize” two decades later, according to our database searches.

Standard dictionaries define the verb “prioritize” as (1) to put things in order of importance, or (2) to treat something as more important than others.

We haven’t found “deprioritize” in standard dictionaries, though the collaborative Wiktionary says it means “to reduce the level of priority”—that is, treat something as less important.

The verb “deprioritize” is out there, as you’ve noticed, but it’s apparently not out enough to make it into either standard dictionaries, which focus on the contemporary meanings of words, or the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

We’ve seen only a few hundred examples of “deprioritize” in our searches of digitized newspapers, magazines, broadcast transcripts, business journals, government documents, press releases, and so on.

A few early ones showed up in the 1970s, including this one: “It’s been my feeling that other types of antisocial behavior often take precedence over malicious destruction of property and, consequently, many tend to deprioritize its significance” (from the Journal of Police Science and Administration, Gaithersburg, Md., March 1977).

A search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks the appearance of words or phrases in digitized books, indicates that the use of “deprioritize” began to increase in the early 1980s, but it’s still primarily used by bureaucrats, academics, technocrats, politicians, and such.

The verb “prioritize” appeared in print in the mid-1950s. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from “Words, Wit and Wisdom,” a syndicated column by the lexicographer William Morris that appeared in various newspapers on Nov. 9, 1954. Here’s an expanded version of the OED citation, in which Morris criticizes “the trend toward making verbs of nouns and adjectives by adding ‘-ize’ ”:

“ ‘Finalize’ and ‘concretize’ are two such barbarisms which made their first appearance in the shop-talk of the advertising business shortly after the last war. Now they seem—according to this column’s Washington operative, Jack E. Grant—to be firmly embedded in the speech of government workers, along with ‘civilianize’ (replace military personnel with civilians) and ‘prioritize’ (give preferential rating to).”

As for “prioritize,” the verb is now accepted by standard dictionaries, though the online American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says in a usage note that it took a while and some diehards are still grumbling:

“Like many verbs ending in -ize, prioritize has been tainted by association with corporate and bureaucratic jargon. Even though the word still does not sit well with some, it should be considered standard. In our 2008 survey, two-thirds of the Usage Panel accepted it in the sentence Overwhelmed with work, the lawyer was forced to prioritize his caseload. Barely half of the Panel accepted this same sentence in 1997. Acceptance may have increased not simply from familiarity but from usefulness, as there is no exact synonym.”

Although “deprioritize” isn’t in standard dictionaries, it may get there yet. Like “prioritize,” it can be useful and it has no exact synonym. But as your comment suggests, familiarity may also breed contempt.

Both “prioritize” and “deprioritize” are derived from the noun “priority,” which meant “precedence in order or rank” when it showed up in Middle English in the early 1300s. We wrote a post in 2016 about the highs and lows of priority.

The earliest example of “priority” in the OED says pride springs from, among other things, “Erthly honowre or priorte” (Cursor Mundi, an anonymous poem written sometime before 1325).

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