English is not long on productive verb-creating affixes — things you can tack onto or tuck into words at will to make entirely new verbs and get away with it — so it's worth celebrating one of the few that have a proven track record: the suffix -ize. -Ize allows you to neologize when the occasion calls for it, in a way that very few other English affixes do.

-Ize's greatest claim to fame is its intimate semantic connection with one of English's busiest verbs: make. Though the two share nothing in etymology, the effect of tacking -ize onto a noun or adjective is to convert said word into a verb that means "make _________." Thus, final + ize = finalize ("make final");  vapor + ize = vaporize ("make vapor," or more idiomatically, "turn into a gas"). Most dictionaries recognize half a dozen additional uses of -ize in verb formation, but the others are mainly figurative extensions of this useful semantic function.

Not long ago, the VT's Ben Zimmer talked about Bob Dylan's use of prophesize. Bob Dylan's sprachgefühl — and that of others who preceded him with prophesize - was right on. There's no reason that prophesize should not mean "make a prophecy." Users of off-list words like prophesize can't be faulted for their morphological instincts, which are consistent with the behavior of English generally; they have simply overlooked, in this case, the existence of the established verb prophesy.

-Ize's second greatest claim to fame is its durability and robustness. Though it doesn't appear in English until the late 16th century, when documentation of contact with Romance languages became increasingly available, -ize has been unstoppable since. It is now freely tacked onto words and roots of any origin — not just Greek and Latin ones, which are the languages of -ize's pedigree. Merriam-Webster's Unabridged Dictionary has about 1500 -ize verbs as headwords; the OED has about 2200.

The years from 1950 to 2000 were a golden age of -izing, when hundreds of new -ize verbs appeared in English. Many were regarded with derision when they first appeared, and those that were Americanisms (many) were often sniffed at by the Brits. But these verbs are all mainstream today, used by all without scare quotes or glosses. You might, as an exercise, see if you can arrange the words in this short alphabetical list chronologically as they appeared in English, all from 1950 to 1990 (answer appears at the bottom of the column).

  • computerize
  • containerize
  • incentivize
  • Mirandize
  • prioritize
  • securitize
  • texturize
  • weaponize

Consumers of World English — and these days, that's all of us — will have noted that writers of various fixed provenances do not use the spelling -ize (and -ization for related nouns) but instead defer, bizarrely, to the French style, which uses the spellings -ise and -isation. What can be the reason for this perverse clinging to foreign influence? The OED's etymology of -ize contains the following text, which we are at times tempted to have printed in large letters on a banner so that we could parade it through the highways and byways of the United Kingdom and various parts of its far-flung former empire. We would give special instructions to the printer to use underscore and Day-Glo orange on said banner for the part highlighted below:

the suffix itself, whatever the element to which it is added, is in its origin the Greek -ιζειν, Latin -izāre; and, as the pronunciation is also with z, there is no reason why in English the special French spelling should be followed, in opposition to that which is at once etymological and phonetic. In this Dictionary the termination is uniformly written -ize.

That said, it's unlikely that users of the -ise spelling, from Darlington to Dubai and from Dundee to Durban, will abandon it soon. We will begrudge them one benefit: In British English, you're much less likely to commit a misspelling if you stick with -ise. Certain verbs in English have a termination that sounds like -ize and that may seem to perform the same semantic function as -ize, but is not actually an instance of it. These words are properly spelled with -ise and they include such common verbs as advertise, chastise, circumcise, supervise, and televise. (Note that none of these words is subject to a transformation ending in -isation.)If, as a Brit or Brit wannabe, you always use the -ise spelling, you won't run the risk of misspelling one of these words with a z. Your risk would be limited to an unlikely misspelling of, say, capsize or downsize with an s. A word subject to special confusion is improvise. It's properly spelled with an s, like its derivative noun improvisation. But English speakers of the future, and perhaps even learners today, might falsely conclude that the clipped form improv is the root- and on this basis, improvize and improvization would make perfect sense.

Listening to the news the other day we heard that the government of the United Arab Emirates is promoting a program it calls Emiratization - that is, its attempt to employ its own citizens, rather than foreigners, for both ordinary and important jobs in the public and private sector. This struck us as an unnecessary liberty, until upon further investigation we found that Emiratization is actually just a translation of the word being used in Arabic — التوطين — which might be more normally translated as nationalization. It, too is formed by standard morphological processes in Arabic. The word, which we could transliterate as "tawTeen," has the underlying root وطن, "waTan", or nation. That got us to thinking that perhaps all languages have a handy -ize device. The OED notes that -ize is cognate with French -ise-r, Italian -izare, Spanish -izar, Latin -izāre, -īzāre, Greek — ίζειν. How do non-Romance languages pull off this handy verb-forming trick? Perhaps some of our polyglot readers know.

Here's the chronology of the list that appears above. In the case of a discrepancy between the first dates recorded in the OED and Merriam-Webster — and there were many, though none of more than half a dozen years — we have used the earlier date.     

texturize 1950
prioritize 1954
containerize 1956
computerize 1957
weaponize 1957
incentivize 1968
Mirandize 1971
securitize 1981

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Monday August 1st 2011, 2:30 AM
Comment by: Barry R.
I suspect (no facts to support) the common man in the street regards ..ize as American and ...ise as English. Therefore, I will continue to use ...ise in the same way I will continue to write colour and not color. Actually, I'm not sure it's merican versus UK English anymore, rather Bill Gates versus UK English.
Monday August 1st 2011, 5:19 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom)
For Barry:
I believe the OED supports the use of "ise" in English (the language of the English). In England, "ize" has become archaic. Some American usage does seen archaic from this (Eastern) side of the Atlantic.
To be fair to Bill Gates et al., when Microsoft offers a choice of dictionaries as in Word®, several English versions are available, including a "UK English" version.
Monday August 1st 2011, 7:03 AM
Comment by: Andrea D. (Cambridge, MA)
Aren't there other aspects of American English that are more conservative than UK English? Can anyone referencize an article? Thanks.
Monday August 1st 2011, 10:34 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I suggested to a British friend last night, when she insisted that it was, after all, the Queen's English, that we should maybe change the name of what is spoken on this side of our pond. The Aussies would be on their own!

We could call it either Americanish, or Canamerish. I think we need a distictive name since English is tied rather obviously to a particular country.

Just saying...
Monday August 1st 2011, 12:23 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Well, I never noticed the "-ise", "-ize" difference, clearly till now.
So, Thank you Mr. Orin for the column.
VT column writers writing are always handy, a pin-point analysis opens our minds eye as well as the physical eyes. I'll apply the information so forth.
By the way, I do not acknowledge any of QUEEN's English. Why people unnecessarily give credit to that the Royal line, I do not understand that trend. Royal word should be deleted from the OED dictionary.
Monday August 1st 2011, 1:05 PM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom)
I really shouldn't post twice. However, I don't understand why the words can't be just American, Australian and the like. The "ish" isn't necessary, I suggest.
England has a Queen. The Queen's English is a term we have used for years, not a trend. The OED has in it words in use and words relating to royalty are among them. A dictionary is not a political tool (pace the spirit of Noah Webster).
Monday August 1st 2011, 3:57 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I was meaning the language, Geoffrey, and Canadians and Americans share much the same speech, with Canadians leaning a bit toward the British usage in some regions. Here on the prairies, it's very little.

So I invented a term to cover NA speaking and writing to avoid using the word associated with another country.

It was partly humorous. But just partly, given the attitudes expressed occasionally by the possessive attitudes of our cousins across the pond since the name of the language bengins with engl.

That's all. Seems that either an ish, ese, or ic would be needed. To keep it close to our cousins, I suggested the 'ish'.
Monday August 1st 2011, 7:06 PM
Comment by: Andrea D. (Cambridge, MA)
I'm still hoping for someone to respond to my question about "American" conservatism in terms of the development of English (the English language). You know, there are stories about how Appalachian English is closest to Shakespeare's? (Maybe in terms of pronunciation?)

Anyway, and by the way, we can NOT call American English, "American." We are quickly becoming and English AND Spanish - speaking country--with plenty of lower incidence languages as well. English is English, a Language, one among many, and whatever our differences with the Brits, it's still a language.
Monday August 1st 2011, 8:11 PM
Comment by: Gillian M.
Thanks for new information re the Latin/Greek roots of '-ize'. I can now contemplate a time when I will move to '-ize' , instead of mistakenly clinging to '-ise' as a stand against americanisation (!) of English.

Te Reo Maori, the language of Maori, the indigenous people of Aotearoa/NZ has its own "handy '-ize' device":'whaka' followed by a noun. This structure is applied across many, many concepts. A few examples:

1. whakaora: (ora = well-being, wholeness)- to bring to a state of holistic well-being

2. whakanui: (nui = big) - to make larger or wider

3. whakawhanaungatanga: (whanau = extended family/whanaungatanga = the state of being an extended family) - to work at developing the relationships that constitute a well- functioning extended family.

The prefix 'whaka' can also be used in conjunction with the prefix 'kai' (which denotes the person/agency who in effect implements the 'making/developing' function of 'whaka'. For example:

1. Te Kaiwhakaora - the Creator (the one who makes wholeness of being)
2. Kaiwhakahaere:(haere = to go/move/travel) - the Boss (the one who makes the organisation move forward/develop)
3. Kaiwhakaako: (ako = to learn and to teach) - teacher
Tuesday August 2nd 2011, 8:33 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, Gillian! This is the kind of interesting linguistic feature that I had hoped the column would elicit!
Tuesday August 2nd 2011, 8:43 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Andrea, I can't answer your question about coservatism in American English, but some months ago, I mentioned that connection between Appalachian English and Shakespeare, and Ben Zimmer said it was an overblown idea, without foundation.

I still like to think of if that way, though. There is a prof in the US who has taken his classes back to the original Shakespearian pronunciations in plays. I did have a link to that video and might be able to find it. If so, I'll post.

I realize that Spanish is becoming a dominant language in the US, something that we'd expect in a land of immigrants. But the dominant form of speech/writing is still that brand of language coming to us from across the pond in England.

That, maybe, we do need another name for so as to upset our English cousins less when we write and speak!

I'm not sure if the term is 'Franglaise' or even if it originated here in Canada,but that, or Franglish, is frequently referred to speech that combines words from both here.

We will mix! English is just born that way!

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