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Some of my spelling checking software failed to recognize the American spelling of the words "organize" and "realize" when a British English dictionary is being used. Curious, I looked up the British form of these words, "organise" and "realise" on oxforddictionaries.com and realize that it actually places heavy emphasis on the American spelling instead of the British one.

Upon further investigation, OED actually has this clarification which I quote:

Why does the OED spell verbs such as organize and recognize in this way?

The suffix -ize comes ultimately from the Greek verb stem -izein. In both English and French, many words with this ending have been adopted (usually via Latin), and many more have been invented by adding the suffix to existing words. In modern French the verb stem has become -iser, and this may have encouraged the use of -ise in English, especially in verbs that have reached English via French. The -ise spelling of verbs is now very common in British use, and Oxford dictionaries published in the UK generally show both forms where they are in use, but give -ize first as it reflects both the origin and the pronunciation more closely, while indicating that -ise is an allowable variant. Usage varies across the English-speaking world, so it is important to record both spellings where they exist. There are a number of verbs with only one accepted spelling – advise and capsize, for example. This is not just perverse: they have different etymologies. The important thing is that people should be consistent in the form they use in a given document.

Nevertheless, from the way things are being presented, it does give me the impression that the American spelling is given a higher priority in a dictionary that is prepared by a renowned British university. Are we moving towards Americanized spelling and more importantly, are the people of Britain moving towards Americanized spelling?

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I've often wondered about this myself. I'd speculate it will be because of the amount of users as a given weight. Americans had better and cheaper access to the Internet far before anywhere else in the world. So they dominated the early days and everyone just followed suit. With the exception of the UK, most countries use the US English version. Or it could be that computers around the world, with the exception of a very few cases, use the US settings on their machines as a default, which would default the dictionaries to that language. Or perhaps a combination of the two. –  Tucker Apr 13 at 8:50
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The style choice of OED predates the Internet ['The suffix -ize has been in use in the UK since the 15th century']. Wikipedia has a relevant article. The University of Oxford website has recommended the use of "s" rather than "z" spellings for its public relations material! Though the influence of American articles on the Internet doubtless is having an effect. –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 13 at 13:05

2 Answers 2

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Firstly, the argument about one or other spelling "reflecting the origin of the pronunciation more closely" is essentially specious. The correspondence between pronunciation and written form is essentially arbitrary. For example, the letter 'z' is generally used to represent a voiced alveolar fricative when writing English, generally used to represent an unvoiced dental fricative when writing Peninsular Spanish, an unvoiced alveolar fricative when writing Mexican Spanish, etc. And spelling and pronunciation in any of these languages could arbitrarily and independently change at any time. A given letter doesn't intrinsically represent any specific sound per se.

In reality, the reason for using the -ize spellings in a dictionary is basically a practical one, as indeed the OED blurb you quote mentions. It isn't intended to reflect the actual percentage use of one or other spelling alternative in any specific variety of English.

By the way, as far as I'm aware, the editorial process of the OED is independent from the academic activities of the university: I'm not sure that you can say that the dictionary is "prepared by the university" in any real sense.

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Unlike other cases (eg theatre vs theater, and colour vs color), it is simply not true that -ize is American and -ise is British.

The first part is true: American sources generally use only -ize (and Americans who have not encountered British writing may see -ise as a spelling error). It is also true that many, perhaps most, British writers use -ise. But the fact that Oxford Dictionaries have long preferred -ize (and did so long before the Internet) means that both spellings are accepted in the UK.

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