English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Burgle or burglarize?

Q: What is the difference between “to burgle” and “to burglarize”? How do you account (if you can) for this unnecessary back—or rather forward—formation? Ignorance of the original? Or is a subtle difference implied between the unidentical twins?

A: Both “burgle” and “burglarize” are respectable, widely used verbs, and they’re recognized as such in all 10 of the standard American and British dictionaries we consult.

However, most people tend to look askance at one verb or the other. Though both are standard English in the US as well as the UK, preferences differ. Americans prefer “burglarize,” according to some dictionaries, while the British consider “burgle” the verb of choice and see “burglarize” as a North American term.

As Jeremy Butterfield writes in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), American English “seems to have mostly preferred burglarize.” But the slightly later “burgle,” he says, “is now the regular word in Britain (and in other English-speaking areas except in N. America).”

Both verbs are 19th-century derivations from “burglar.” The first to appear, “burglarize” (1840), was created with the verb-forming suffix “-ize.” The other, “burgle” (1861), was a back-formation (or shortening) of the original noun.

As means of creating verbs from other parts of speech, both the “-ize” suffix and the back-form are many centuries old. Nevertheless, critics of “burgle” complain that it’s clipped from “burglarize”—which isn’t even true—while opponents of “burglarize” complain about the suffix.

Both have completely clean rap sheets and don’t deserve the abuse, as their histories show. Though they were comparatively late to appear, they have roots in the 1500s when their forebears “burglary” and “burglar” first showed up in writing.

Those felonious nouns—one for the act itself and one for the person committing it—can be traced to medieval Anglo-Latin, where a burgator in British law was someone who committed burgaria. In the 1200s, those were the terms for “burglar” and “burglary” in legal language, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

Before that, the words’ etymology is murky. “No corresponding words are known in continental Old French or medieval Latin,” the OED says.

But the dictionary suggests that “burglary” and “burglar”—along with the corresponding terms in Anglo-Latin and Anglo-French legal language—may have developed from “the first element of burgh-breche, the native English term for burglary.” (The Middle English burgh-breche came from the Old English burh-bryce, for breaking into an enclosure.)

The first English version to appear was “burglary” (1523), followed by “burglar” (1541).

The earliest use of “burglary,” according to our searches of historical databases, is in a legal dictionary written during the reign of Henry VIII, The Exposicions of Termys of Law of England and the Nature of the Writts (London, 1523), by John Rastell. Here is Rastell’s definition of the word:

“Burglary is when one breketh and enterith into a nother mannis howse in the nyght to the entet to stele goodis i which case though he bere away nothyng yet it is felony and for that he shalbe hangid / but the brekyng of an house in the day for suche entent is no felony.”

Rastell uses the word in the plural, spelled “burglaryes,” in a compilation of public acts entitled The Statutes Prohemium (2nd ed., 1527). He mentions “burglaryes of howsys and theyr receyuers,” and refers to robbing the dead as “burglaryes of men perishid or slayn.” It’s possible that the word appears in the first edition of this book, published in 1519, but we haven’t been able to find a copy to search.

As for “burglar,” it first appeared in another legal book (spelled “burglour”), according to the OED. This is the dictionary’s earliest example: “Burglours are properly such as felonously in ye tyme of peace breke any house, church, etc.” From The New Booke of Justyces of Peace (1541), by the judge and legal scholar Anthony Fitzherbert.

[Historical note: It’s interesting that Fitzherbert, writing in French a few decades earlier, had used the word burglers in La Graunde Abridgement, his 1514 compilation of British legal cases. (The OED has the citation: “Burglers sont ceux que entrent mesons ou eglises al entent de inbloier beins.”)

This was a time when a dialect known as “law French” was the official written language of the British legal system. It seems likely that Fitzherbert put into law French a word, “burglers,” that was already in use in English. As we’ve said, it’s been suggested that the Anglo-Latin and Anglo-French terms used in English law developed from burgh-breche, which the OED describes as “the native English term for burglary.” So it’s possible that “burglar” existed before “burglary,” at least in spoken English.]

The word was spelled “burgler” in several English works published later in the 16th and early 17th centuries. The modern spelling “burglar” first appeared in writing, as far as we can tell, in a 1579 edition of the Rastell legal dictionary we mentioned above.

Here’s the passage, found on the database Old English Books Online: “but if a seruant will conspire with other men to robbe his master, and to that intent hee openeth his masters dores, or windowes in the night for them, and they come into the house by that way, this is burglary in the straungers, and the seruant is a thefe but noe burglar.”

Finally we come to those 19th-century verbs, “burglarize” and “burgle.” The OED’s earliest examples are from the early 1870s, but older ones turn up in searches of historical databases.

The earliest use of “burglarize” that we’ve found is from a humorous article in an 1840 issue of the Sporting Review, a British monthly. In the scene, competing horsemen in a point-to-point race are held up at the locked gate of a churchyard:

“In this dilemma there were but two resources open to the infuriated stewards,—one to carry the key vi et armis; the other, to burglarize the cellar.” From “Steeple-Chasing in Ireland: A Sketch,” by an Irish author writing under the name Shamrock. (The Latin vi et armis means by trespass.)

The next sighting is from an American newspaper: “Ten of those do-nothing-honestly fellows that snooze and drink whisky during the day, and rob hen-roosts and burglarize during the night, were arrested by the police yesterday near the R street levee, and will be arraigned this morning as vagrants.” From the Sacramento Daily Union, June 29, 1854.

As for “burgle,” the earliest example we’ve found is American: “He is the same man who was telling about his cabin having been burgled, some years ago, of 75 ounces of gold.” From the Daily National Democrat (Marysville, Calif.), Jan. 15, 1861.

In the summer of 1867, the British weekly Public Opinion, as well as several Australian newspapers, ran a brief paragraph crediting an American paper for inventing “burgle.” Here’s the item in its entirety, probably supplied by an American or British news service:

“The New York World has coined a new verb—‘to burgle.’ It is derived from the noun ‘burglar’ or ‘burglary.’ We cannot regard it as a happy invention; but no doubt, as the English race on both sides of the Atlantic are fond of neologisms, it will be adopted by many.”

We’re not convinced that the New York World was the first to use the term, since it began publishing on July 17, 1860, and a California newspaper used “burgle” only a few months later. (We’ve been unable to search the World’s archives for its first use of the verb.) But it does seem likely that “burgle” originated in crime reporting.

You may have noticed that “burglarize” appeared first in Britain, and “burgle” first in America. Only later did “burglarize” come to be the American preference and “burgle” the British.

As we’ve said, they’re respectable verbs. What’s more, they’re useful. Consider some of the outrageous verbal phrases people used in earlier times: “burglarily breake” (1530s); “burghlarlie rob” (1581); “burglariously enter” (1603); “burglarly steal” (1664); “burglariously break” (1638); and even “burglariously steal, take, and carry away” (1788).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.