Abaddon Books

Word Nerd: The Look In Your -ize

5 years ago

Thou whoreson zed, thou unnecessary letter!

King Lear, Act 2, Scene 2

Ah, look at the beautiful British words: apologise, realise, sanitise, extemporise. That simple s, so elegant and neat. And here’s the ugly Americanese: randomize, burglarize, contextualize, hypothesize. That hateful z! What’s with that?

Well, as usual, the popular conception is slightly flawed. In fact the -ize ending isn’t some sort of inexplicable Americanism, but the original(ish) British spelling; and the -ise ending wasn’t British originally, but a French invasion. And the story that brings us to our current usage has a bit to do with politics, a bit to do with human laziness, and a whole heap to do with the awesome might of dictionary-publishers.*

Hungry -ize

The origins of this most troublesome suffix lie (as a surprising number of things in English do) in Ancient Greek. The original form was -ίζειν  (-izein), meaning more or less what it does today: it’s added as a suffix to a noun or adjective, turning it into a verb which means “to make into [thing].” Hence, for instance, the modern English realize, which means “to make real.” The Greek suffix entered Latin as -izare, and thence romped across Europe, getting up in people’s faces and moving stems around different parts of speech.

In English, this became -ize, and was applied to any new words constructed this way from Latin or Greek roots, whether directly or via other languages (usually, obviously, French).

Bedroom -ise

But not all words that end with this sound came this route! Despise comes from the Latin despicio; advise takes the Latin suffix -iser for the “frequentative” case; in incise and revise, the -ise is part of the stem! No-one’s really sure, but there are at least a few dozen English words that happened on -ise for reasons entirely unrelated to the -izare ending, and they should always be spelled with an s wherever you’re from.

Behind Blue -ise

Enter French! Most European languages always pronounce s with a hard “ss” sound, but French (as I’m sure you’re aware) generally only uses that sound if the letter falls at the start of a word, softening it to a “zz” sound in the middle and end of most words (the Normans brought this pronunciation to England, and it’s now more or less standard for us as well). Hence, while -izare was busily intruding on English as -ize, it entered French phonetically as -iser.

What does this have to do with us? Well, English had two lots of endings: -ize for words like realize and emphasize, and -ise for words like despise or advise. And while the rule – basically, “if the word means ‘to make [noun or adjective],’ use a z” – is simple enough, most people are kinda dumb, and tried to remember the full list of -ise words rather than the nice, easy -ize rule. And here was this French spelling kicking around (most literate people were familiar with French, being basically middle-class), and it became fashionable (“easier”), over the nineteenth century, to use -ise for everything.

Bette Davis -ize

Now to America. Once the French -ise became entrenched in Britain, it started to enter American usage, where it came across opposition from various sources, including academic purists and Anglophobes. But the oddest enemy of -ise – and ultimately the deciding one – was Noah Webster, creator of one of the first American dictionaries. Webster preferred the z as more intuitive to pronunciation, and simply refused to print the French -ise endings in his dictionary. Since his dictionary (now the Merriam-Webster) quickly became the authority on American usage, it’s stuck ever since.†

I Only Have -ize For You

Just to confuse the matter, Oxford University Press keep all the original -ize spellings as a matter of house style – purely because ew, French – so that the single most distinguished authority on British English actually disagrees with everyone else in Britain.‡ For most of the mid-twentieth century, in fact, more high-brow speakers** assumed that the -ise ending was American, in spite of it being far more common over here...

It’s In Your -ise

So the short answer is, if the verb means to “to make into [noun],” then it’s up to you; Americans and Oxford University Press believe you should use -ize, because they’re a) being precious about Greek and/or b) worried about phonetic spellings, while most British and the French we learned it from think you should use -ise. But if it doesn’t, then odds are that pesky little z never belonged there, and you should stick to -ise whatever happens.

Clear? Clear as mud.



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.


*Seriously, these guys have more power than you realise.

†A few years later, the Webster usage enjoyed reinforcement from an absolutely wonderful quirk of American history called the Simplified Spelling Board, which a future blog will discuss. The SSB, as well as taking out the extraneous u from color and honor and shortening tonite and thru, tried to turn every use of the soft (“zz”) s to z, so we’d have had rize and thouzand. Like most of the SSB’s missions, they had mixed success.

‡Silly old dons.

**In this case, defined as “people who only ever read things published by the OUP.”