Word Endings: ‘-ize’ or ‘-ise’?

An Australian perspective on the “Special Relationship” and its impact on the English language. British or American spelling? The answer is more complex than you think.

Photo by Pisit Heng on Unsplash

‘Bugger off,’ I say under my breath to the red zig-zaggy line under the word I’ve just clattered out. I’m Australian, so I see that line on a lot of correctly spelled words. The admonishing red zig-zag highlights words I write on Facebook, Instagram; and unless I change the default language to ‘Australian English’, I see it frequently on Microsoft Word too. Which is where this short and word-nerd-wonderful story begins. But I need to talk about the “Special Relationship” first.

The Special Relationship

The “Special Relationship” between the US and UK first came to my attention while watching BBC spy show Spooks. (I recommend it, by the way.) Popularised by Winston Churchill in 1946, and used consistently since then, the “special relationship” encompasses “political, diplomatic, cultural, economic, military, and historical relations between the United Kingdom and the United States.”

I guess the old power and might of Britain and its empire days might have had trouble coming to terms with the young upstart America rising to become such an instrumental power in the West. Purportedly sharing cultural values, the two Western nations are naturally, different. And they want to appear different.

Popular convention says British (thus Australian) spelling uses ‘-ise’ for words like specialise and cannibalise, and American spelling uses ‘-ize’, it’s a way of showing those quaint little differences in the “Special Relationship” Right?

These differences in what is seen as right and proper show up in things like spelling and language choice.

For example, the original (UK) title Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone books and film became America’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It was thought Americans wouldn’t get their heads around the word ‘philosopher’. Keeping with the HP theme, in the books, UK/Australia’s word ‘bin’ was changed to the American word for a rubbish receptacle, ‘trash’.

Likewise, popular convention says British (thus Australian) spelling uses ‘-ise’ for words like specialise and cannibalise, and American spelling uses ‘-ize’. It’s a way of showing those quaint little differences which some folk — ok, maybe folks like myself — cling to.

Back To Me

Busily typing out my manuscript in MS Word. Have not bothered to change the default language setting to ‘Australian English’.

‘Oh FFS’, I sigh. The dreaded red line under the word ‘epitomise’. Because that’s the British and Australian way, right? Or was it in fact, the American spelling, ‘epitomize’??

Where could I turn to to make sure my Australian English is as right as the combination of vegemite, avocado and toast? I knew where I had to look.

I [Heart] Macquarie Dictionary

The Macquarie Dictionary is a bit of an institution here. Like most other dictionaries, the good folk at Macquarie spend their days deciding which words, through lack of use, need obliterating from the Australian lexicon, and which must be included. I have a personal affection for the way Macquarie have kept step with socio-political progressions over the past few years too.

Macquarie gave us ‘Me Too’ as the Macquarie Word of the Year in 2019. More controversially, in 2010, after the (then) Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s infamous ‘Misogyny Speech’, (then) editor Sue Butler broadened the definition of the word ‘misogyny’ from “hatred of women”, to include “entrenched prejudice against women”, more accurately reflecting the systemic misogyny Gillard spoke of.

Back to the Word Endings — is it ‘-ize’ or ‘ise’?

Fully thinking I’d be correct in spelling ‘epitomise’ the ‘British’ way, according to the Australian perspective, I was wrong. It’s not about two Western powers trying to define themselves by being slightly different linguistically — well, not entirely. It’s to do with etymology: the cultural roots of the words themselves.

According to Macquarie: “Words which derive from Greek via Latin take the –ize ending to show their link to the Greek ending –izein. Words which have come into English from Old French take –ise to reflect the French ending.”

Words which derive from Greek via Latin take the –ize ending to show their link to the Greek ending –izein.

Words which have come into English from Old French take –ise to reflect the French ending.

So there you have it. In my case, ‘epitomize’ is one hundred percent correct. And one hundred percent Greek and Latin in origin — not American.

It’s easy to Google word etymologies to see if they come from Greek and Latin, or French. And the Special Relationship thing is true — each English speaking country has adopted its own style guide, where the ‘-ize’ = America and ‘-ise’ = British works and is considered correct. Because a young Australia wanted to remain close to Old Mother England, our style guide also says ‘-ise’ is correct: We thought that’s what the British were doing.

But as with all things linguistic and grammatical, whichever way you swing, there are exceptions.

‘-ize’ in Oz

If you decide to write endings with ‘-ize’, there are a lot of exceptions because the following words were imported from France:

“ …advertise,advise, comprise, compromise, despise, devise, exercise, improvise, revise, surprise, televise.”

‘-ise in Oz’

If you decide to be like the Brits and us Aussies, we have only one exception: capsize.

But we also have the word ‘authorise’, which I’m guessing was decided on while Australia was in the thick of its Cultural Cringe. Authorise actually has Greek and Latin roots so really should be spelled ‘authorize’. Bursting to be more British, we chose ‘-ise’, and now it’s just the way we do it.

Disclaimer: I don’t work for Macquarie Dictionary. I’m just a writer and word-nerd in a crazy, mixed-up world, genuinely excited about new wordy knowledge and wanting to share.

May you chose the ‘-ize’/ ‘-ise’ word ending which is either the most etymologically correct, or simply the most patriotic choice for you.

Freelance Writer|Emerging Author|Shrews Untamed Podcast

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