-ize verbs are ‘like lavatory fittings, useful in their proper place but not to be multiplied beyond what is necessary for practical purposes.’
Some people have an almost pathological aversion to certain words ending in -ize and would do all they could to expel them from the body of English.
(NB: ‘-ize‘ here stands also for the spelling –ise)
Why? Sometimes it seems almost like a blood feud: just as venomous and visceral, and just as unreasonable.
Here’s an example:
Monetize: a word we didn’t need
Only in the perverted world of the web can something as simple and fundamental as making money be in need of a fancy word like “monetize”
from the blog Signal v. Noise.
Here’s a question from the Grammarphobia blog.
Q: A curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York was quoted as saying that “risk has been incentivized.” Yuck! Any comments?
A: Someone in the arts has no business using that kind of bureaucratese. Leave it to the CEOs and politicians.
And here’s Brian Garner on disincentivize: “Disincentivize is JARGON for discourage or deter” and he gives the example (from the San Francisco Daily): “We’re competing with Los Angeles and New York firms for talent,” Bochner said. “We don’t want to disincentivize people from coming here because there are huge gaps in salary.”’
Any discussion of words such as the above, it seems to me, has to attempt to answer at least the following questions:
- what do they really mean?
- are they necessary or useful?
- are they overused?
- when are they appropriate?
- who dislikes them, and why?
- when did the dislike start?
A history of contempt
Verbs in -ize have existed in English for a very long time, e.g. baptize since 1297, organize since 1425, generalize also 1425, etc., etc.
The OED lists no fewer than 2,315 of them. Some are nonce words (to wondernize – ‘to make a wonder of’, 1599; to miraculize – ‘to transform [a person] with miracles’, 1751); many were—some might say ‘thankfully’—short-lived (to abastardize, ‘to declare [someone] illegitimate’], 1574—1692|; to accowardize, ‘to render [someone] cowardly’, 1480—1642).
But many are indispensable in everyday language, and seem to ruffle no feathers, e.g. authorize (first recorded in the 14th century), civilize (17th), memorize (16th), sterilize (17th), terrorize (19th), and, more topically, computerize (1960).
One prolific coiner of –izes was the Elizabethan maverick writer Thomas Nashe, whom the OED credits with 28, including overprize, which has survived (by the skin of its teeth), and unmortalize (= ‘to kill’), which has not.
The OED entry for the -ize suffix suggests that he was criticized, nay, anathematized, and martyrized for its overuse:
Reprehenders, that complain of my boystrous compound wordes, and ending my Italionate coyned verbes all in ize.
What happened between then and the nineteenth century I don’t know, but usage gurus in the 1800s repeatedly condemned them, as Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage explains.
Not even Noah Webster himself was immune to izeophobia. While deigning to enter the word jeopardize, he nevertheless noted: ‘This is a modern word, used by respectable writers in America, but synonymous with jeopard and therefore useless’.
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A generalized dislike? ‘Crude, overused, or unnecessary’.
In his 1996 edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Robert Burchfield referred to ‘The widespread current belief that new formations of this kind are crude, overused, or unnecessary’. (He substantiated this by referring to a single comment in Gowers’ Plain English, so perhaps ‘widespread’ should be interpreted as ‘prevalent among the small group of Oxonians, usage pundits and others who care deeply about such things’.)
However, his adjectives reflect some of the issues about these words that I touched on at the beginning.
Are they necessary? To my mind, their very existence confirms their necessariness. Speakers do not generally create phantoms. Moreover, several such words have highly specific technical or scientific meanings. How many people object to being anaesthetized before an operation? (Though of course, the pedantic could insist on being ‘given an anaesthetic’.)
Are they overused? I don’t even know how one would begin to answer this question. If ‘overused’ means ‘there are too many of them’, how many would be not too many? How many would be too few?
Perhaps it means individual verbs are used too often. In which case, there must be a notional cap on any given word. If so, who decides what it is? (‘OK, Mr Carney, you’ve used “undercapitalized” three times today. That’s your lot, mate. You’ll have to find another word, or put a tenner in the -ize box.’)
The question doesn’t make any kind of sense.
Another criticism sometimes levelled at –ize verbs is that they are ugly (e.g. by Gowers), or inelegant. But aesthetic criteria in language are subjective. Your ugliness can be my practicality.
One might be on firmer–though still rather subjective–ground in suggesting that some of them sit best in certain kinds of discourse.
For instance, Garner might have a point that ‘disincentivize’ is jargon and needlessly ousts simpler words such as deter or discourage. Then again, he might be wrong; it all depends on context. In the specific example he quotes, the subject matter is, after all, financial, and you could argue that disincentivize is actually more accurate and focused than the synonyms he suggests: it packages a more complex idea, which means that the sentence could be paraphrased as ‘we don’t want to remove whatever possible incentives we can provide for talent’.
Like many original technicisms (e.g. neurotic, semantic, mesmerize), such words escape the confines of their original domain. That they do so does not make them unnecessary or suspect.
I would, in fact, argue that many -ize verbs are a very convenient way of packaging in one word meanings and connotations that would otherwise take several.
They are beautifully (or uglily, for many) economical.
What do they mean?
One can only take them individually.
Going back to ‘monetize’, many of the 44 comments on the website mentioned at the beginning quibble over what it ‘really’ means1.
Some argue that it is just a pompous way of saying ‘make money out of ’. If so, any flab it adds in pomposity it quickly works off through brevity.
Economy of effort should never be underestimated in language, as a couple of other commenters (?) are quick to grasp. One says: ‘“How can we monetize this?” actually means “How can we make this make money?” and is thus more efficient and avoids the double use of “make”’. Another quips ‘Monetize is a word that has a specific meaning when used in context. It is [a] useful word for making conversations shorter, therefore making meetings shorter.’
But I don’t think it usually means merely ‘make money out of’. As one of the commenters says, ‘the term monetize is more referring to “how can we take this thing we already have (traffic, users, etc.) and convert it into money.”’
That echoes the relevant OED definition and examples: To exploit (a product, service, audience, etc.) so that it generates revenue.
1998 Boston Globe 14 Jan. c6/6 It’s all about eyeballs, audience acquisition… Growth lies in the ability to monetize those eyeballs.
Moreover, that meaning is the fourth and last of a word that first saw the light of day in 1867.
(And if anyone can think of a way of monetizing this blog, do, please, let me know.)
Which leads seemlessly (only joking, but it’s a common enough eggcorn) to another word that is, in my view, both economical and versatile. In 1982, Burchfield described prioritize as
‘a word that at present sits uneasily in the language’. While some people still consider it an uninvited guest, it seems to have made itself at home and got its feet well under the table.
Consider its usefulness. With a single word you can express the meaning ‘Designate or treat (something) as being very or most important’ (e.g. the department has failed to prioritize safety within the oil industry)
‘Determine the order for dealing with (a series of items or tasks) according to their relative importance’ (e.g. ‘age affects the way people prioritize their goals’)
(intransitively) To establish priorities for a set of tasks. (e.g. A hot file forces you to prioritize because you have to select which things will be included.)
Its other benefits include nominalization as prioritization, and derivatives, reprioritize and deprioritize.
Finally, in this paean to -ize verbs, take a word which, as it happens, is more common in British than in American English, despite probably sounding to many Brits like an Americanism; and, far from being new, was first used—albeit in a different meaning—in 1827: diarize/diarise.
It expresses ‘to put in one’s diary’ in a single word. How convenient is that?
In his The Complete Plain Words (1954), Sir Ernest Gowers, drawing on the well-established ‘unwanted alien’ trope for language, wrote:
‘The main body of the invasion consists of verbs ending in ise.
‘“There seems to be a notion”, says Sir Alan Herbert, “that any British or American subject is entitled to take any noun or adjective, add ise to it, and say, “I have made a new verb. What a good boy am I.”
‘Among those now nosing their way into the language are casualise (employ casual labour), civilianise (replace military staff by civil), diarise (enter in a diary), editorialise (make editorial comments on), finalise (put into final form), hospitalise (send to hospital), publicise (give publicity to), servicise (replace civilians by service-men), cubiclise (equip with cubicles), randomise (shuffle).’
As happens with such verbs, three have disappeared together with their referent (civilianise, servicise, cubiclise), but the others have forcefully demonstrated their usefulness.
Gowers then uses the aesthetic argument:
‘This may be symptomatic of a revolt against the ugliness of ise and still more of isation, which Sir Alan Herbert has compared to lavatory fittings2, useful in their proper place but not to be multiplied beyond what is necessary for practical purposes.’
(He also quipped: ‘If nobody said anything unless he knew what he was talking about, a ghastly hush would descend upon the earth.’)
As long ago as 1996, Burchfield proved that
‘Any feeling that the language is being swamped by new formations in -ization and -ize does not appear to be supported by the facts.’
(As an example, of the 5,219 post-1970 words in the OED, a mere 40 are -ize verbs. )
1 A wag among the commenters writes: ‘The first time I saw that word, I thought “Monet-ize”? You mean, scrunch up your eyes to make everything blurry, like the plein-air painters do? When I learned what the word was intended to mean, I realized my initial thought was correct – it is linguistic bullshit designed to obfuscate the fact that you are trying to figure out how to make money from something that should just be free.’
2 I have to confess, since coming across this phrase, I’ve never understood exactly what Sir Alan meant. Bidets? Toilet paper holders? Bog brush?