The ‘-ize’ Have It

A popular suffix gets even more so

News organizations are in a quandary. They’re trying to “incentivize” readers, “monetize” the publication’s content, and “prioritize” their resources.

It’s not enough, apparently, for them to “attract” readers; they have to offer some sort of incentive. But it takes three words to “offer an incentive” and only one to “incentivize.”

“Incentivize” is young, by lexicographical standards. The Oxford English Dictionary traces its first use to 1968, in Britain, where it followed British spelling as “incentivise.” Its first American use was not until 1980, in Time magazine; The New Yorker used it in 1987 (in a sentence with “Betamax,” which has long since disappeared from the language). Though it’s not in every dictionary—yet—it has reached mainstream status, with more than 2000 Nexis hits in the past month alone.

But “incentivize” is still too long for some people, who prefer “incent,” as in “the airline is trying to incent passengers to pay more for luggage.” The first use of incent, according to the OED, was 1977—by the Associated Press, no less—and its use is mostly North American. To many ears, though, “incent” sounds too much like “incense,” a verb meaning to make angry, so one must be cautious in context, like “This fee change is intended to incent our passengers.”

Garner’s Modern American Usage calls “incentivize” an “-ize barbarism,” and says of it and “incent”: “There is no good incentive to use either one.”

“Monetize,” on the other hand, is a much older word with a brand-new meaning. The OED says it was first used in 1867, and gives its definitions as: 1a. “To establish (a metal) as standard currency in the coinage of a country; to put into circulation as currency”; 1b. “To convert (an asset, debt, etc.) into money, to realize the value of (an asset, debt, etc.) as currency”; and 2. “To convert to the use of money; to convert (an economy) to a monetary system.”

None of those definitions captures the way “monetize” is being used today: “to make money from our content/product/delivery system.” The closest is the OED’s sense 1b, to convert an asset into money, though that traditionally has been meant literally, as in “I’m going to take my mother’s jewelry and monetize it so I can buy a new Jaguar.” As happened with “incentive,” people apparently decided it was too cumbersome to say “figure out a way to make money from our content.”

Then there’s “prioritize,” which the OED says was first used in 1954, in a Reno, Nevada, newspaper discussing government-speak words like “finalize” and “concretize.” It’s another American invention that Garner’s turns up its nose at: “Instead of prioritize, conservative writers tend to use set priorities or establish priorities. In time, of course, prioritize might lose its bureaucratic odor. But that time has not yet arrived.”

There are many other “-ize” formations, of course. It’s probably best to “intellectualize” your writing and try not to “idolize” the unfamiliar and clunky ones.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.