-ize: a suffix used to form verbs from adjectives and nouns

Ubiquitization: This is a strategy adopted by service firms in order to physically distribute their products and services ‘everywhere’.

Jones & Robinson, Operations Management (2012)

A variety of  specific E2 carrier protein and E3 enzyme pairs impart another important level of selectivity through their capacity to catalyze the ubiquitization of certain targeted proteins or classes of protein.

Stump & Nair in Joslin’s Diabetes Mellitus, 14th Ed. (2007)

Ubiquitization. Now, there’s a word. It’s the sort of word that people object to, the sort of new coining with -ize that seems to set the teeth on edge. Interestingly, for a new word, it has already acquired two different meanings, illustrated above. Jones & Robinson are using it as you might expect, forming a verb from the adjective ubiquitous. But Stump & Nair have formed the same word from the noun ubiquitin, the name of a protein that is extremely widespread in eukaryotic cells, in which it appears to have many roles, including marking other proteins down for degradation when it binds to them, in a process variously called ubiquination, ubiquitylation or ubiquitization. (Me, I’d stick with ubiquination. Life’s too short for the other two.)

People have been objecting to -ize words for years—in the nineteenth century the recently popular words demoralize, deputize and jeopardize were taken to be signs that the English language was in terminal decline. (The American lexicographer Noah Webster, of whom more later, actually claimed to have coined the word demoralize in a pamphlet written around 1793. But in his Dictionary of the English Language of 1828 he dismissed jeopardize as being unneeded because there was already a perfectly good verb from jeopardy, namely to jeopard. Sadly, jeopard was already dead when he wrote those words—Samuel Johnson had been criticized in 1755 for including such an obsolete word in his own Dictionary.)

Perhaps there are still people around who dislike the word jeopardize. There are certainly  those who still condemn hospitalize as something ugly and new-fangled, even though it’s been in use for more than a century. Of other hated -ize words, prioritize has been around since the 1950s, and incentivize since the ’60s.

The other thing about -ize that seems to raise people’s ire is what I’m doing right now—using British English spelling, but with the -ize suffix instead of -ise. A surprising number of people seem to believe that -ize is an Americanism, and -ise is the correct British spelling.

However, -ize is what I was taught at school, and it’s the standard spelling used by that bastion of British English, the Oxford English Dictionary. British English speakers frequently encounter British English documents using -ize, but many must either fail to notice, assume an error has been made, or deduce that yet another creeping Americanism has crossed the Atlantic.

But British English was using -ize long before there was an America. for instance, the OED’s list of citations attests the spelling realize in 1611, whereas realise doesn’t appear until 1755, in a letter written by Samuel Johnson (I’ll come back to that).

Why are there two spellings? The suffix -ize comes from the Greek verb-forming suffix -izein and the Latin -izare. Words that came into English direct from the Classical languages therefore brought a z with them. But some words arrived with us more circuitously, via French. The French language doesn’t have much use for the letter z in the middle of a word, and so replaced it with an s. So Greek baptizein, Latin baptizare, became baptiser in French—“to baptize”. So if English imported a word from French, it came with -ise as the default ending. But there are several problems with using a mixture of -ize and -ise according to a word’s origin: 1) No-one could keep track of that; 2) Sometimes we can’t tell which route a word followed; 3) Sometimes a word arrived by both routes; 4) We’re still inventing -ize/-ise words, within English, and often from words that are not Latin, Greek or French—winterize, for example.

So it really comes down to nothing more than “house style”—publishers (and individual writers) get to choose whether they use -ize or -ise, albeit with certain limitations I’ll come to in a minute. There is no right or wrong, merely a matter of consistency.

Johnson (who, you’ll recall, wrote the OED’s first example of realise) seems to have been a fan of the -ise variant, but not consistently so. His dictionary has (for example) an entry for epitomise, but also for  gormandize. The latter, being derived from the French, would seem to be a good candidate for the -ise suffix, if you were that way inclined.Johnson's Dictionary "epitomise"

Johnson's Dictionary "gormandize"
Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755)

Noah Webster, though, came down firmly on the side of -ize, partly from etymology, but mainly for consistency and uniformity with pronunciation. His choice has made American English the only version of English in which -ize is required and -ise forbidden. He also established the American spelling -yze (as in analyze), which never occurs in British English (analyse).

Webster's Elementary Spelling Book
Webster’s Elementary Spelling Book (1783)

But British English has always kept a foot in both camps. Back in 1926, Henry Fowler wrote:

Most English printers follow the French practice of changing -ize to -ise; but the OED of the Oxford University Press, the Encyclopaedia Britannica of the Cambridge University Press, The Times, & American usage, in all of which -ize is the accepted form, carry authority enough to outweigh superior numbers.

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage

Since then, Oxford University Press and the OED have held the line, to the extent that the use of -ize is sometimes called “Oxford spelling”. However, the University of Oxford style guide (for staff writing on behalf of the University) recommends -ise. Cambridge University Press’s style guide for British English nowadays allows either -ise or -ize. The Times switched from -ize to -ise in 1992. And the Encyclopædia Britannica is now an American publication that speaks of aluminum, sulfur and defense, and so can’t be taken as an exemplar of British spelling any longer.

 So is -ize now vanishingly rare? Not at all. I did a search of the British National Corpus (100 million words of British English text from the 1990s) using Brigham Young University’s handy search tool. I took the ten most common -ize verbs in the Corpus, and checked the proportion of -ise and -ize forms. (Since you ask, they were realize, recognize, organize, emphasize, minimize, criticize, apologize, maximize, characterize and summarize.) Overall, the -ize ending was used 37% of the time. As a quick check on the extent to which the Corpus might be contaminated by (say) quotes from American English, I checked for the occurrence of aluminum, sulfur and pajamas, which were the chosen spelling less than 1% of the time.

So -ize is still in common enough use in British English that it’s something of a puzzle that so many Brits seem not to have noticed.

There are a couple of reasons you might want to use -ise, however. One was given to me by the editor of a new publishing house, who told me he was going with –ise “… because we don’t want people to think we’ve got it wrong.”

The other reason is that you don’t need to remember so many exceptions. There are about 30 common verbs in English, ending with the sound -aɪz, that must be spelled -ise (even in American English). That’s because, although they happen to have an -aɪz ending, it doesn’t come from Greek -izein, Latin -izare or French -iser. These verbs get their -ise spelling from some other etymological source.

One broad group has the -ise as part of a larger etymological unit. So we have:
Verbs ending in -cise (“cutting”):
circumcise, excise, incise
Verbs ending in -mise (“putting”):
demise, premise, surmise
Verbs ending in -prise (“taking”):
apprise, comprise, enterprise, prise (as in “prise open”), surprise
Verbs ending in -vise (“seeing”):
advise, improvise *, revise, supervise

Another group are those verbs that are derived from a noun which contains -ise:
compromise, disguise, enterprise, exercise, franchise (+ enfranchise & disenfranchise), merchandise, premise
(Verbs premise and enterprise appear in this list and the one above, because there is some doubt about their route of arrival in English.)

A couple are back-formations from nouns containing an s:
advertise (from advertisement), televise (from television)

Finally there are a few that don’t fall into the categories above:
arise, rise (Old English)
despise (Latin despicere, “to look down upon”)
devise (? late Latin *divisare, frequentative of dividere, “to divide”)
chastise (etymology unclear, but not Greek, Latin or French)

There are others: agrise (“to shudder with horror”, from Old English), emprise (“to undertake”, -prise suffix), hypocrise (back-formation from hypocrisy). Altogether, include rare and obsolete words, the list stretches beyond sixty.

So when you use the -ize ending, you have to bear all those in mind.

Whereas, if you go for -ise, you can forget all that detail. But just be sure to remember capsize. No-one knows its derivation, but it’s always spelled with -ize.

* You might wonder what improvise has to do with “seeing”. It comes from the prefix im-, meaning “not”, and Latin provisus, “foreseen”. You improvise in unforeseen circumstances.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.