Collins Language

Blogs from the Collins Language team in Glasgow, UK.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

July 2008

The -ize have it
One of the things I'll be doing in this blog is to discuss topics that I get asked about over and over again. One of these questions came up again this month – the perennial issue of whether words such as 'organize' and 'realize' should be spelt with '-ise' or '-ize'.

Most people in Britain are taught at school to use the '-ise' spelling, so it comes as a surprise to find that Collins (along with all other leading dictionaries) opts for '-ize' as the primary spelling form – although both are regarded as acceptable. One of the reasons for showing the '-ize' forms first is that this reflects the international consensus about the spelling. But it is not just a question of the creeping Americanization of English. This suffix has its origins in Greek, where the letter zeta (Z) was used instead of sigma (S). The Z form is also found in Latin, and it was only when the words moved into French that the S form took precedence. So there is also a good historical case for giving precedence to '-ize'.

Pot luck
One of the rewards of dictionary editing is that you frequently come across odd little facts and coincidences about language. Earlier this week I was looking at the word 'chytrid', which is a type of fungus that can be fatal to frogs, and which comes from a Greek word meaning 'little pot'. While working on this I was pleased to stumble across two completely unrelated words that also mean 'little pot' in their original languages: 'kettle', which comes from the Latin catillus, and 'poteen', which comes from the Irish poitín. It's little things like this that keep you going in this job.

Few months go by without some person railing against the creeping use of jargon in English. However, it might be worth reflecting that although everyone gets annoyed when they encounter difficult language that is difficult to understand, jargon (in its primary sense of 'specialized language concerned with a particular subject, culture, or profession') can actually be very useful. It allows extremely precise instructions to be issued and acted on in a short time – medical staff in an emergency room or soldiers about to storm a building would be in trouble if they had not developed specific shorthand to describe complex actions and equipment quickly. It can also be useful in certain situations to discover whether or not a person has the skills and experience he says he has. It also fosters a sense of unity within a team. I think jargon becomes undesirable only when it is used to communicate with people outside the group that developed it, as often happens when specialists are asked to explain their actions to a wider public.

So to round off this month's blog, here are a few examples of jargon that have escaped into everyday English and become widely embraced:

AWOL absent without leave (originally military jargon)

Bilge rubbish (originally naval jargon referring to foul water collecting at the bottom of a ship)

Blighty Britain (from a Hindi word for 'foreign', originally used in the phrase 'a blighty one' meaning a wound which necessitated a soldier's return home from India)

Blue-chip something considered a valuable asset (from stock-exchange jargon for the most reliable type of share, which in turn comes from the colour used to signify the highest value of chips in gambling)

Des res a desirable place to live (originally estate agents' jargon)

Grog alcoholic drink (originally naval slang, from Old Grog, the nickname of Edward Vernon, an 18th-century admiral who issued naval rum diluted with water)

Sticky wicket a difficult situation (originally cricketing jargon, referring to a pitch made difficult after rain)

Tweak to adjust slightly (originally journalistic jargon, referring to making slight changes to another writer's copy)

Ian Brookes - Managing Editor - English Dictionaries & Thesauruses