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October 22, 2012Zed’s dead, baby…

Is it better to be right or to be popular? It’s a question to which every schoolkid knows the answer, especially if he’s used to getting beaten up. Of course, by definition the majority choses that which is popular. However, that doesn’t make them right.

The curious case of ‘-ise’ vs ‘-ize’ is one such example. -ize is right. But he’s getting beaten up.

In British English, -ise (“specialise” “criticise” etc) has become the norm in the last 30 years. However, unlike traditional British spellings such as “colour” with the “u”, the -ise isn’t truly British. He’s more of an American import.

What’s that you say? In America, we spell everything with a Z, from “specialize” to “advertize”. And you’d be correct.

But it’s not just the fact that Americans have extra “zing”. It’s the incorrect belief that our friends across the pond hold that -ise is, and always has been, the only choice for us Brits — and that’s where the problem lies.

While it’s true -ise has been listed as an acceptable alternative to -ize (a much more established form dating back to the time of Queen Elizabeth I), in almost every British English dictionary since 1945, -ize remained commonplace and was even preferred well into the 1970s. Until then, to spell everything with -ise was seen the sign of a poor education, as it indicated an inability to distinguish between the correct usage of the two forms. Now, it’s the other way round.

So what happened?

We stopped using dictionaries. We started using spell checkers — most of which were manufactured or programmed in America, or else simply took the view that all British people always use “-ise” for the same unfathomable reason we chose to put “u” in colour. In actual fact, until this point, most British people used the z — except in irregular verbs, which must always use -ise, further complicating the issue.

The excellent metadyne.co.uk has a comprehensive history of the -ise -ize debate, concluding that -ize is technically correct, but is in the process of becoming archaic — a fault we can lay squarely at the door of Microsoft (and, perhaps, the decline of the British education system).

Yes, it became acceptable to spell words using -ise after 1945, but only as an alternative (for people who kept getting confused). It took the juggernaut that is Microsoft Word for -ise to gain the upper hand. Word has never — and still doesn’t — acknowledge the “-ize” (now known as Oxford Spelling, due to the continuing support of both the Oxford English Dictionary and the Oxford University Press). And of course, most people do their spell checking with Microsoft Word.

Think this doesn’t matter? Think again.

The Times got a drubbing for switching from -ize to -ise, amidst accusations of dumbing down. And if you’re writing for older people, you might too. Many of the older generation — my English teacher included — still see the modern corruption as a sign of a lesser education. Of course, he also taught me not to start sentences with “and”, a rule you’ll note that I frequently ignore. Despite this, I still prefer the use of the “z”.

Perhaps it’s the patriot in me. Perhaps it’s the snob. But the preferential use of -ize over -ise is not an Americanism. It’s the original, and correct, form.

Sadly, it’s on its way out.

The tyranny of the majority

A little like starting a sentence with the word “and” , perhaps it doesn’t matter who’s right — only who is most popular. After nearly 30 years of Microsoft Word, most people have forgotten the original spelling and even those of us who know the difference have largely acquiesced, tired of having to point out five hundred years of historical evidence to the contrary every time we’re told we’re spelling something wrong.

It is extraordinary, but the truth is that an omission made thirty years ago in a near universally popular piece of American word processing software has irreversibly changed the language of an entire nation.

Zed’s dead.

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This entry was posted on Monday, October 22nd, 2012 at 6:31 pm and is filed under Blog. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

One comment

  1. Russell says:

    I was educated in New Zealand. When I was about six or seven, I was given a “spelling book”. This had graded lists of words I was expected to learn to spell. Somewhere near the end was “organize”. The list was drawn from the Oxford dictionary. When I got to high school, one of the books I was given on my first day was a Pocket Oxford Dictionary. The epithet “Pocket” provoked various schoolboy jests such as “If that’s the size of the pocket, how big is the …” well never mind.
    When I left school I worked for a while in the production department of a small publisher. We had a house style guide and it said some like “Use Oxford spellings”.

    In the 1970’s I went to university, spent some time as a hippie and tried to make the most of what none of us realized was the greatest decade in the sexual history of the human race. Meanwhile, at Bell Labs, in New Jersey, a small group of scientists and engineers were creating a computer operating system called “UNIX” (Yes, it’s supposed to be capitalized, and incidently “it’s a wise dog that knows its own fleas). UNIX quickly spread into the academy. You could buy bigger computers if you didn’t pay for the operating system and Bell Labs was givin UNIX away to universities. Among those early universities were the University of Melbourne and the University of New South Wales. Presumably there was a good deal communication between UNSW and Bell Labs.

    By 1982 UNIX was a commercial product. Microsoft had bought a source code licence and ported it to the Intel 8086, branding the product “Xenix”. They also rewrote MS-DOS from scratch. MS-DOS was, as Alan Robson said, “UNIX with all the good bits taken out. Moreover, they were not writing MS-DOS on MS-DOS machines, but Xenix machines and “cross assembling” the output to work on MS-DOS.
    Now to draw these disparate threads together. I know all this stuff about Xenix and MS-DOS because I was now working as a programmer on these two systems. I mainly worked on the Xenix system, particularly if I was writing docmentation. Xenix had inherited a spell checking program from UNIX. I was advised to run it with the “-b” option to get British spellings. It flagged “organize” as a spelling error. When I checked the documentation for the spell program, the Bugs section said “British spellings were written by an American.”

    I now live in Australia. The self proclaimed national dictionary is the Macquarie dictionary. It is the only English language dictionary I’ve seen that lists “organise” but not “organize.”

    Oh! by the way, my mother’s maiden name was MacQuarrie. Would I trust a dictionary that can’t spell its own name?

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