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

There has been much spluttering about the prince’s use of ‘Americanisms’ in a letter to Emmanuel Macron, but the truth is more complicated

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


David Shariatmadari

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
How Prince Charles plans to sterilise the nation’s squirrels – with Nutella
More than 3.5m of the invasive rodents live in Britain, and their presence is harming the welfare of their native red cousins. Luckily, HRH has a cunning plan to reduce their numbers

Pass notes

26, Feb, 2017 @5:30 PM

Article image
Prince Charles in Papua New Guinea: how to speak pidgin English like a royal

The 'nambawan pikinini bilong Mises Kwin' spoke the local creole language as he and the Duchess of Cornwall began a tour to mark the Queen's diamond jubilee year. Here's a vocabulary lesson for beginners

Adam Jacot de Boinod

05, Nov, 2012 @2:39 PM

Article image
Prince Charles letters: what does a graphologist make of them?
Why wait for the publication of the Charles ‘black spider’ memos to work out what the future king thinks, when you can just ask a graphologist to look at one of his old ones?

Homa Khaleeli

29, Mar, 2015 @4:30 PM

Article image
Prince Charles – in the mood for dancing | Emine Saner
Emine Saner: Whether it's a jive, a samba or a frolic with a sword, Prince Charles seems to crowbar a boogie into most diplomatic trips

Emine Saner

19, Feb, 2014 @6:59 PM

Article image
Prince Charles and the Daleks: caption competition

What are Charles or Camilla (or indeed the Daleks) thinking at this meeting at the Doctor Who studio in Cardiff?

03, Jul, 2013 @11:43 AM

Article image
Twelve-year-old trunks: how to make your clothes last as long as Prince Charles’s swimwear
The prince has been photographed in bathers that are more than a decade old. Keeping our clothes is the best way to reduce their environmental impact – here’s how to do it

Paula Cocozza

20, Mar, 2019 @4:44 PM

Article image
Prince Charles at 70: is this multimillionaire really a role model for frugality?
The heir to the throne insists on patching up his clothes, some of which are nearly 50 years old. Is he a poster-boy for the eco-lobby, or just a bit weird?

14, Nov, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Ill-gotten gains – why Americanisms are a boon for the British
Many phrases the British love to hate are actually old English expressions – while many genuine Americanisms are accepted without a fuss. Are they a bad thing? You do the math

Steven Poole

16, May, 2017 @11:27 AM

Article image
Is the British art of understatement ever so slightly dying out?
Gradable adverbs such as ‘rather’, ‘quite’ and ‘awfully’ are disappearing from our speech, according to linguistics professor Paul Baker. Is it a frightful shame – or are we just getting better at saying what we mean?

13, Nov, 2017 @1:15 PM

Article image
Prince Charles's FAQs: in his own words
The truth about my breakfast routine, the royal fleet of cars and plans for my coronation

His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales (as seen by Stephen Moss)

13, Nov, 2012 @1:45 PM