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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Should you hate the word "responsibilize"?

For some reason, the suffix -ize, which has been hugely productive in English for the last 600 years (the OED lists almosts 3000 words with this ending, with "canonize", "evangelize", "solemnize" and "authorize" dating from the 1300s), tends to raise some people's hackles.

"Jeopardize" was roundly attacked in the 19th century, but no one objects to it now, nor to "economize", "terrorize", "formalize", or any number of other -ize words which, at one point, were new coinages. Yet, when people encounter a new (to them) word with this suffix, some of them have hissy fits.

A friend of mine recently came across "responsibilize" in something she was editing and felt she should, in her words, "share this atrocity" with me. Why is "responsibilize" an "atrocity" whereas no one bats an eyelid at the similarly formed "mobilize"  or "stabilize" (both borrowed from French in the 1800s)?  French seems to have fewer qualms about words like this, living happily with "culpabiliser" (make someone feel guilty) and "sensibiliser" (make someone aware of or sensitive to)  -- and expressing those ideas a lot more efficiently than English does, I must say! "Responsabiliser" has been used in French since the 1970s, as indeed "responsibilize" and its derivatives have been in English.

It seems that Spanish doesn't mind being creative with -ize endings either. I recently stumbled across this: "HERMAN CORNEJO PROTAGONIZARÁ EL CORSARIO". That is, Herman Cornejo will perform the lead role in Le Corsaire. But "protagonize" is so much more efficient!

"-ize" is an extraordinarily useful suffix. It dates back to the ancient Greeks, who used it to create words like "barbarize" (literally, "speak like a foreigner") and (it goes without saying the much more commendable) "Hellenize" (to be or speak like a Greek). As a (somewhat testy?) lexicographer at oxforddictionaries.com puts it: "Some traditionalists object to recent formations of this type: during the 20th century, objections were raised against prioritize, finalize, and hospitalize, among others. There doesn't seem to be any coherent reason for this, except that verbs formed from nouns tend, inexplicably, to be criticized as vulgar formations"

-ize doesn't deserve the opprobrium it gets. Just try living without it.


  1. I m going to trust you on this one.

  2. I was looking for a good translation for "responsabiliser" and "empower" did not meet the true meaning from my point of view. I will use "responsibilize" after reading your post.
    Glad to know some French can be of use to simplify English (for once!).
    Thanks a lot

  3. Great post! Most objections to supposed "new words" tend to come from people who just don't like words they're not familiar with, I suspect. But it's always important to remember that such changes are why English even EXISTS; if these things didn't regularly happen, we'd all still be speaking Indo-European.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.