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).
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.