Abaddon Books

Word Nerd: Burgle or Burglarize?

4 years ago

Ever read an American book using the phrase burglarize and had a good sneer at the stupid Americans and their silly made-up words, because obviously burgle is the right word? It’s pretty likely you have, but what you’ve probably not worked out is that you’re totally, balls-out wrong.

Well.

Wrongish.

I mean, basically, neither burgle nor burglarize are really derived correctly, but they both kind of make sense and they’ve been used for roughly the same amount of time, so... they’re either both right or both wrong.

Burgle

Burgle is a neologism created to provide a verb for burglars, first found in print in 1872, through a process called backformation. This, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is where a new word is formed by taking parts away from an existing word in the mistaken belief they were prefixes/suffixes of a smaller word that never existed. It’s a type of false etymology.*

The noun from which it’s derived, burglar, came into English fully formed, and while, several steps back (via “Anglo-Latin” – the form of Latin used by priests in Anglo-Saxon England – Medieval French and Medieval Latin), there was a verb (meaning, more or less, “that thing people do in burgs,” or cities), it was left behind right back at the beginning of the process, and burglar had changed form several times.

But it looked, to nineteenth-century English speakers, like an agent noun. An agent noun is a noun created from a verb, to denote an agent – usually a person – that carries out the verb, generally by adding the suffix -er, as in cutter or driver. The Victorians decided that was what the -ar ending of burglar was, and took it off to backform the verb burgle.

And they were sort of right – the original noun that burglar was distantly descended from was an agent noun, in Latin – except that the l in burglar is (or is descended from) part of the suffix. The proper English form of that old Latin verb should probably be something like to burg. Which, I think we can all agree, lacks gravitas; imagine a police report claiming that I “burged” three houses on my street to finance my crack habit. No way I’d keep that on my fridge.

Burglarize

Around the same time (first found in print in 1865, so if anything slightly earlier), across the pond, our Americanian friends were posed with the same challenge. Did they backform like chumps? No, they tupping well did not. Like the true hardy frontiersmen they are, they went ahead and added a motherfucking suffix.

The suffix in question is -ize (British readers will prefer -ise, on which more in a future blog), from the Latin -izare, which is added to a noun or adjective to form a verb, meaning essentially “to make into [thing],” as in realise (“to make real”), finalise (“to make final”), emphasise (“to make emphatic”) and so on. On the face of it, a bit out of place for burglar, since burglarize suggests the act of turning a non-burglar into a burglar,† but it’s not the only -ize that “breaks” that rule. There are a number of -ize words (like sermonise and apologise) which sort of mean “to proffer [thing],” and a whole set of words (like cannibalise and authorise) that more or less mean “to act like [thing],” although they’re all constructed using the same suffix. Burglarize, obviously, falls under the latter heading.

So There You Go

Burgle is a backformation, and while there sort of is a root verb there to uncover, it doesn’t have an l in it; and burglarize doesn’t quite use the -ize ending strictly correctly, but it is in line with other words that came by the same route. Use whichever you like.

Or just avoid the confusion by avoiding the world altogether. I don’t call it burgling or burglarizing; I call it “ruining Christmas for the neighbour-kids,” and I giggle to myself as I do.

Cheers, all.

David

As always, if you want to argue with me, or to chat about this shit, or to propose a topic for a future blog, let me know! Tweet us; Facebook us; let’s have an argument/chat.

---

*Or folk etymology, which rather sweetly suggests etymologists in Morris outfits or something.

†Perhaps there’s a ceremony, with a certificate and a stripy jumper.