Utilizing makes master

French people, as some of you may have noticed, can be a bit fractious when it comes to language use. I usually don’t care myself about real or perceived anglicisms (saying “conférence” instead of “colloque“, oh the horror!) but I’ve recently become susceptible to one special case, which gives me an idea of why people may take this kind of things so seriously.

I speak here of what seems to be a new rash of use of the verb “utilize” in English. Every time I read it, I shudder from head to foot — why not use the simpler, rounder and altogether nicer “use“? Psychologically, this is somewhat amusing because, after all, “utiliser” is the French version of the word, and also I don’t mind “utility” at all. I have the impression that for some reason I get annoyed because I don’t really know how to parse or say the word internally (where is the accent?), and this might be just because I have never (that I remember) heard this word used in a way which would make it sound good.

The other question is whether it is really something new, or happening more often, or if — somehow — I just managed to miss it before? (According to Google, it seems “utilize” is rather decreasing in use at the moment; but maybe it is rising in certain places, e.g. on the internet, and not so much in books?)

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I am a professor of mathematics at ETH Zürich since 2008.

7 thoughts on “Utilizing makes master”

  1. BTW, I guess “use” comes also from the French verb “user” which initially was closer to the meaning of “utiliser”.

    Funnily, in some French speaking communities in US (ex. Cajun community), they really prefer the verb “user” to “utiliser”, like “j’ai usé le marteau” (I have used the hammer), which, said like that in current French, is closer to “I have worn out the hammer”.

  2. The words “utilize” and “use” mean different things in english, and most people use “utilize” incorrectly. To utilize is to make practical and efficient use of. That is to utilize is to use practically and efficiently.

  3. I should mention utiliSe as being the correct spelling outside the US.

    I know it’s a bit of a grEy area though….

  4. “Utilize” is one of those words which, like “facilitate,” has consistently been attacked as a neologism for decades.

    I pronounce it YOOT-ilize, and for me its meaning is hardly different from that of”use” — the choice of words just depends on how the word sounds with its neighbors.

    Kuszmaul’s distinction has merit — it’s true one would never say “That guy’s uncouth; he utilized a knife to eat his peas.”

  5. The OED frowns upon the “-ise” ending. It’s a faux French spelling which was only adopted relatively recently – the Times used “IZE” until the early 1990’s. As an aside, I have found that amongst educated mathematicians, Americans seem to be much more competent when it comes to matters of grammar and writing than people from commonwealth counties. Some more on “IZE”:

    “British English using -ize is known as Oxford spelling, and is used in publications of the Oxford University Press, most notably the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as other authoritative British sources. The OED lists the -ise form separately, as “a frequent spelling of -IZE…”[58] It firmly deprecates usage of “-ise” for words of Greek origin, stating, “[T]he suffix…, whatever the element to which it is added, is in its origin the Greek -ιζειν, Latin -izāre; and, as the pronunciation is also with z, there is no reason why in English the special French spelling in -iser should be followed, in opposition to that which is at once etymological and phonetic.”” It maintains “… some have used the spelling -ise in English, as in French, for all these words, and some prefer -ise in words formed in French or English from Latin elements, retaining -ize for those of Greek composition.”[59] Noah Webster rejected -ise for the same reasons”

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