Excerpt: 'The Prodigal Tongue'

From THE PRODIGAL TONGUE: The Love-Hate Relationship between American and British English by Lynne Murphy, published on April 10, 2018 by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © M. Lynne Murphy, 2018.

Mignon Fogarty
5-minute read
Episode #616

Jacket Art: The Prodigal Tongue

In 2012 a British learning-disability charity quizzed over two thousand adults on their spelling and found that about a third could not spell definitely. The headlines that followed proclaimed that the population had become too dependent on spell-checkers, which had ruined our ability to spell. Those headlines made me more concerned for the population’s critical reasoning faculties than for their spelling. The fact that a lot of people in 2012 couldn’t spell tells us only that a lot of people in 2012 couldn’t spell. Unless we know how well people in 1972 spelled, we cannot know that spelling skills have worsened. In fact, we should be open to the possibility that spell-checkers help us to learn spelling. If not for the gentle insistence of spell- checkers, I am sure I’d still be spelling accommodatio with one m. Technology can teach.

But people like to blame technology. And so Britain worries about American “spelling imperialism,” which BBC broadcaster John Humphrys says “now stretches via your desk-top through spellcheck,” resulting in “a deep sense of grievance at what the Americans are doing to us.”  I’ve had to listen to this grievance (a lot), but I haven’t seen the damage. Awareness that Americans spell things differently seems to have ignited a newfound sense of orthographic patriotism in many Brits. Sure, you’d probably find more color in Britain today than fifty years ago because there are people who have not figured out how to change the dictionary in their spell-checker or auto-complete feature. But British English has not succumbed to color; it is still considered to be a misspelling.

The case of -ise and -ize, on the other hand, indicates that technology may be moving “correct” spelling in the US and UK away from each other rather than merging them. It’s a complicated situation with a complicated history. The -ize spelling is a way of representing a Greek spelling in English using the Latin alphabet. But the French spell the same suffix as -ise. Some of these words came into English from postclassical Latin, which used the Greek z (characterize from characterizare), some from French with an s (specialise from spécialiser), and some were invented in English by using -ise or -ize as a suffix. For instance, apology gave rise to apologise (and later apologize) and personal got the verb form personalize (and later personalise).

Then in the 19th century, use of the suffix exploded. The Oxford English Dictionary records about nine hundred new -ize words from the 1800s. That’s as many -ize words as had been added to English in the previous six centuries and three times as many as they record for the 20th century.  The year 1825 gave us lionize, minimize, and objectivize. The 1850s were good for euphemize, externalize, and serialize. Most of these new words were British before they were American.  This verbifying suffix-fest coincided  with—maybe even spurred on—the  mid-1800s British shift towards preferring the -ise spelling for both new and old verbs. This shift may have been inspired by the large number of 19th-century -ise words that were borrowed directly from French, including  galvanise, mobilise, and polarise.

The 19th-century rise of the -ise spelling in Britain coincided with its downfall in America. Noah Webster’s shift to -ize makes the spelling correspond unambiguously to the /z/-ful pronunciation (-ise can also be pronounced with /s/, as in promise, anise, and vise). But while the shift to -ize is one of Webster’s most successful interventions, it’s also terrifically incomplete. Americans don’t use a z in the verbs advertise, merchandise, surprise, or compromise, though they’re all pronounced  with /z/. There are historical explanations for some of the exceptions, but the facts of the matter are: Webster’s change made American spelling more stable, in that it reduced the number of spelling options, but it didn’t make the spelling completely regular.

While Americans  had made a firm  decision about how to spell the suffix, the British didn’t feel a particular need to conform. The preference for -ise in the 1800s was reversed (at least for some words) after the publication of the Oxford English Dictionary, starting in 1884. Faced with many words with complicated spelling histories and usage, the OED editors decided to treat all the words the same and to present the -ize spelling before the -ise one for each verb. They chose -ize on the grounds that the suffix goes back to Greek, even if not all the words containing the suffix do. The z spelling became more popular with British publishers after the OED, but the s spelling was still considered an acceptable alternative.

Things went wrong for the British z in the 1990s. In the 1990s, The Times in London and Cambridge University Press suddenly switched allegiance to -ise after preferring -ize for the seventy years prior. At this point,  spell-checkers had been readily available for about a decade, but since they allowed both ise and ize in British English, documents could pass muster while confusingly spelling the same word in two ways. The internet had recently been rolled out to the public, giving people more opportunity to read other countries’  spelling than ever before. These developments led to two lines of thinking:

1.  Spellings should be consistent within a document—no more mixing -ize and -ise, and

2.  If Americans are spelling it -ize, then -ise must be “the”  British spelling.

And so people started believing that -ize is American (perhaps even believing that the spelling was invented in America) and that it is simply wrong in Britain. A spoof “message from the Queen” that does the rounds after US elections declares that Her Majesty is retaking the colonies and “the suffix -ize will be replaced by the suffix -ise,” as if -ize is not British. There’s even reluctance to use -ize among those who know that the fashion for -ise is recent. A 2011 letter in the British Medical Journal quotes Fowlers Modern English Usage:

The primary rule is that all words of the type authorize/authorise, civilize/civiliselegalize/legalise may legitimately be spelt with either -ize or -ise throughout  the English-speaking  world except in America, where -ize is compulsory.

But then the letter writer  concludes:

Speaking purely personally, I think that anything that is compulsory in America should be avoided. 

Our globalized communication culture hasn’t killed off ise; it has strengthened it. -Ise is not just a suffix; it is a badge of honor, declaring to all and sundry, I AM NOT AMERICAN. True to form, when wanting to look not-American, British English looks more French.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.