Ize on the prize: is Prince Charles the last guardian of British spelling?

Bad news for a certain kind of pedantic patriot (look away now, Jacob Rees-Mogg). Prince Charles has debased the English language – and in a letter to a foreign potentate, no less.

Our future king has essentially committed treason by using a ghastly “American” spelling in a letter expressing sympathy and support for the French president, Emmanuel Macron, after the fire at Notre Dame this week. He wrote: “I realize only too well what a truly special significance the Cathedral holds at the heart of your nation.”

It’s the “-ize” that has set people off. Aren’t the royal family supposed to be the guardians of this kind of thing? It’s as though Olivia Colman moved to Los Angeles, swore off tea and vowed never to use the word “Blighty” again. The ravens have left the tower.

Hold on, though. What’s this? The Oxford English Dictionary says that both -ize and the more British-feeling -ise are acceptable variants, and that the -ize spelling has a long pedigree. In fact, “realize” is attested in England as far back as 1611, with the first instance of “realise” coming 144 years later.

The prince is evidently wise to this. “Royal sources” have told the Daily Telegraph that “the letter was merely a continuation of the prince’s lifelong preference of using older English spellings, considered correct by the Oxford Dictionary of English.”

So, where do we get the idea that -ize is an Americanism?

The OED tells us that the suffix comes from ancient Greek, where “-izein” was used to form verbs from nouns. Barbarizein, for example, means “to play the barbarian [barbaros], act or speak as a barbarian, side with the barbarians”. The “z” is a transliteration of the Greek letter zeta, ζ.

As the linguist Lynne Murphy points out in her excellent book The Prodigal Tongue, words that came into English from Greek via Latin tended to use the “z” spelling. These include “characterize”, from characterizare. But words that holidayed in France before they arrived at these shores used “s” – “specialise”, from spécialiser, for example.

As a result, English ended up with a mishmash of “s” and “z” words, depending on their history. That didn’t impress the influential US lexicographer Noah Webster, who felt a bit of consistency was required. In his 1828 dictionary, all the -ises became -izes (this does, after all, better reflect the pronunciation – Webster also wanted to change the word “is” to “iz”).

According to Murphy, it wasn’t until the 90s that the Times and Cambridge University Press both decided to throw their lot in with -ise. And then came the internet. Englishes from across the world were suddenly available on everyone’s computer and people began to notice that US pages always used -ize. The British started to shun it. The myth of a time-honoured battle line, drawn sometime after the Mayflower set sail, was born. What short memories we all seem to have – except, as it turns out, princes of the realm.

Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth About Language by David Shariatmadari (Weidenfeld & Nicholson) is out in August


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