Q: A young man I mentored uses the term “invisibilization” in a Fulbright study about unauthorized migrants transiting Costa Rica. At first I was taken aback by the usage, but now I believe it may be a brilliant term for dismissing a group of people. Your thoughts?
A: “Invisibilize” and “invisibilization” have been around for some time (the verb since the 1840s and the noun since the 1930s), but they haven’t made it into the 10 standard dictionaries that we regularly consult. Nor are they among the 600,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological reference.
However, the collaborative dictionary Wiktionary has entries for both terms. It defines “invisibilize” as “to make invisible; to marginalize so as to erase the presence or contributions of.” And Wiktionary defines “invisibilization” as “invisibilizing,” which it says is the verb’s present participle and is a term chiefly used in sociology.
We should add that “invisibilizing” is both a present participle (as in “that word was invisibilizing us”) and a gerund, a verb form that acts as a noun (as in “invisibilizing is a form of oppression”).
Although these term are often seen in scholarly writing by social scientists, they haven’t made the transition from academese to ordinary English, which is why they aren’t yet in standard or etymological dictionaries.
When the verb appeared in writing in the 19th century, it meant to hide. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a play first performed in London: “Where shall I invisibilize myself? Is there no friendly cupboard, or chimney, or coal-cellar?” (from Like Father, Like Son, an 1840 farce by R. J. Raymond).
As far as we can tell, the sociological sense of the verb was first recorded in the second half of the 20th century. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a book by an American sociologist about racism and sex:
“Historically, when black men and women came in contact with white men and women, whatever the occasion, the blacks had a fixed role to play, a rigid, docile way to act, in order to nullify (‘invisibilize’) the sexuality of their presence” (Coming Together: Black Power, White Hatred, and Sexual Hang-ups, 1971, by Calvin C. Hernton).
Since then, “invisibilize” has been used in many areas (gender, politics, fashion, music, religion, etc.) to mean exclude, ignore, erase, or dismiss.
The composer Ned Rorem, for example, has used it in discussing music and poetry: “Music, being more immediately powerful, does tend to invisibilize all poems except bad ones” (from Critical Affairs: A Composer’s Journal Unbound, 1970).
As for “invisibilization,” the earliest example we’ve seen is from God in a Rolls Royce: The Rise of Father Divine, Menace or Messiah? (1936), by John Hoshor.
The author writes that Father Divine, an African-American religious leader, coined terms “such as physicalate, omnilucent, intutor, invisibilization, contagionized, begettion,” and so on.
Interestingly, Father Divine appears to have used the verb “invisibilize” to mean disappear when the police came to arrest him in Milford, CT, in connection with a violent incident at his headquarters in Harlem. Here’s an account of the arrest from the April 23, 1937, issue of The New York Times:
“When the police of the Connecticut town found him, Father Divine first tried to ‘invisibilize’ himself behind the furnace. When that failed, he raised his right hand and said: ‘Peace, it’s wonderful.’ ”
Getting back to “invisibilization,” the sociological sense of the noun appeared a few decades later: “Many of the women reported a progressive sense of invisibilization as their graduate careers continued” (from Sex, Ethnic, and Field Differences in Doctoral Outcomes, a 1975 PhD dissertation by Lucy Watson Sells).
The usage reminds us of a sense of “disappear” that English borrowed in the 1960s from desaparecer in Latin American Spanish: to cause someone to disappear by arrest, abduction, or murder.
The OED’s earliest citation is from a Pittsfield, MA, newspaper: “One day, without explanation, he ‘was disappeared’ to Czechoslovakia, say reliable Cuban sources” (The Berkshire Eagle, Oct. 16, 1965).
The usage also prompts us to mention the use of “cancel” to mean boycott or withdraw support from those promoting unacceptable beliefs. The dictionary’s first example is from the script of a crime film: “Cancel that bitch. I’ll buy another one” (New Jack City, 1990, written by Thomas Lee Wright and Barry Michael Cooper).
And the first Oxford citation for the noun phrase “cancel culture” is from an Oct. 28, 2016, tweet by @unicorninkkon: “I hate cancel culture until I want to set things on fire!”
Will the OED ever add “invisibilize” and “invisibilization”? Perhaps, but only if more English speakers use them and give the usage greater visibility.