Prioritize is a term coined a few decades ago and its usage, according to the AHD, should be considered informal by now:

  • Like many verbs ending in -ize, prioritize has been tainted by association with corporate and bureaucratic jargon. Even though the word still does not sit well with some, it should be considered standard.(AHD)

According to Etymonline the term is quite recent:

  • 1972, apparently coined during the U.S. presidential contest that year, from root of priority + -ize.

while its root, priority, is much older:

  • late 14c., "state of being earlier," from Old French priorite (14c.), from Medieval Latin prioritatem (nominative prioritas) "fact or condition of being prior," from Latin prior (see prior (adj.)).

But earlier usage examples actually suggest that the term was coined and used before 1972:

The department shall, in consultation with the department of health, evaluate existing site evaluation systems and shall develop a system to select and prioritize sites for remedial action.From Warren's Weed on the New York Law of Real Property 1950.

... localities with the expense of school building construction, it may exercise its discretion in weighing and applying specified factors applicable to requests for state education funding in order to prioritize such requests. From American Jurisprudence: A Modern Comprehensive Text Statement of American Law, 1962.


Is now "prioritize" a standard verb, commonly used outside beaurocratic contexts as AHD suggests?

When and where (AmE or BrE) was the term actually coined?

  • 1
    'Its usage should be considered standard' says nothing about register. Wikipedia has: 'Although Standard English is generally the most formal version of the language, a range of registers exists within Standard English, as is often seen when comparing a newspaper article with an academic paper, for example.' / 'Prioritize' is commonly used in many domains, in my experience. Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 14:57
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    Weird. The word has never seemed particularly "new" to me.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 17:36
  • The word has always seemed rank to me. Commented Oct 29, 2017 at 17:06
  • 1
    @JeffMorrow - I think you're out of order.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 3:27
  • I wonder if the origin of this word is Greek. It seems to be a combination of two words and that is pro meaning before or primary and Horizon meeting something definitive so it seems to make a definitive distinction before an argument for an action Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 15:33

2 Answers 2


Daily Writing Tips has [reformatted]:

Some speakers hate to hear people use the word prioritize, complaining that “it’s a made-up word [aren't they all?] that shouldn’t be used.”

Prioritize is a fairly new word, coined in the 1950s, and growing in popularity since the early 1960s. Speakers use it to mean:

  • to give priority to

  • to designate something as worthy of special attention

  • to arrange items to be dealt with in order of importance

  • to establish priorities

  • to establish priorities for a set of tasks

Here are some examples of its use online:

  • KMT, CCP agree to prioritize service trade agreement

  • How to Prioritize Your Debts

  • Council Approves Two Projects That Prioritize Pedestrian and Bike Safety

  • Four Must Know To-Do Lists To Prioritize Tasks

  • Strengthening parliaments in nascent democracies: the need to prioritize legislative reforms

As late as 1982, twenty years after prioritize entered the language, the OED acknowledged its existence, but included an apologetic note, saying, “prioritize is a word that at present sits uneasily in the language.”

Thirty-two years later, the OED site employs the word prioritizing unapologetically in a discussion of the term “network neutrality”:

This concept [network neutrality] has been the subject of much debate in recent years, reflecting something axiomatic for many Internet users; that all data on the net should be treated equally by Internet service providers, without favouring particular formats, products, or web sites by charging extra fees, prioritizing or blocking data of certain types, and so on.

The dictionaries I've checked in that do flag for 'formal' usage in 2016 (CDO and Macmillan) do not add the caveat for 'prioritize/prioritise'. And among the first 10 of the 45 000+ Google hits for "prioritise my" are examples 'Why I finally decided to prioritise my personal life over my' / 'How should I prioritise my debts?' [x3]/ 'Is there a way to prioritise my ps4's Internet usage?' / 'how could I prioritise my network connections' / 'Why I Decided To Prioritise My Daily Meditation' / 'I need to know how to prioritise my different devices on the new hub' (the other one may be more formal; it's by a business person).

In summary:

(1) There are Google Ngram hits for as far back as 1829 for 'prioritise', but very few. The major use (either spelling) has been post-1950.

(2) The evidence indicates that the verb is considered part of the lexicon now, and its use is by no means confined to formal (in particular bureaucratic) registers.

  • Interesting, so what is your answer to my questions?
    – user66974
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 15:13
  • 'Coined in the 1950s' (which tallies with your temporally first example) '1982 ... 20 [or more] years after [it] entered the language' / online examples 2 and 4 are non-bureaucratic. And the defined senses and 'growing in popularity' at least very strongly suggest a move to less formal registers. Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 15:21
  • Actually there apprears to be usages from the '40s, books.google.it/…, and my personal impression is that its register is still quite formal, but let's see if there are other views on this.
    – user66974
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 15:55
  • 3
    I checked the first 32 unique matches for prioritise from Ngram Google Books—covering the years 1826–1929—and found that all were instances of OCR errors. Specifically, these words were misread as prioritise (number misread instances in parentheses): primitive (2), primitiæ (20), prionidæ (1), priorisse (3), promise (1), priorities (5). The 10 corresponding errors for prioritize for the period 1849–1929 include priorities (3), _œnanthe (1), prúritus (1), prior to its (1), glorious (1), primitiæ (2), and exercise (1). Also, it bears noting that collections ...
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 22:27
  • 2
    ...of statutory laws, such as the North Carolina collection from 1944 that Josh61 mentions in a comment above are dated very unreliably, often by the year of their baseline publication, though they are republished for years afterward with the inclusion of statutes adopted or amended in later years. I did find an instance of prioritise from 1942—but it is in a U.S. Senate hearing record and appears to be a typo for priorities, as it appears in the name of an administrative body, the "Supply Prioritise and Allocations Board."
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 22:37

I concur with Edwin Ashworth's observation/conclusion that prioritize and prioritise are in common use today, far afield from government work. The following Ngram chart tracks the rise of prioritize (blue line) and prioritise (red line) over the period 1950–2007:

A Google Books search of either spelling yields numerous matches for the word, in content that targets audiences ranging from business to government to academic to self-help.

Easily the earliest match for prioritize in the Elephind newspaper database comes from William Morris, "Words, Wit & Wisdom" in the San Bernardino [California] Sun (November 9, 1954)—a column dedicated to government "officialese" and neologisms. Here is the relevant paragraph:

Another tendency noted among government workers on both sides of the Atlantic is the trend toward making verbs of nouns and adjectives by adding "-ize." "Finalize" and "concretize" are two such barbarisms which made their first appearance in the shop-talk of the advertising business shortly after the last war. Now they seem—according to this column's Washington operative, Jack E. Grant—to be firmly embedded in the speech of government workers, along with "civilianize" (replace military personnel with civilians) and "prioritize" (give preferential rating to).

If this news piece is correct, prioritize originated as advertising jargon, at some point between 1945 and 1954, and migrated from there into bureaucratic language. William Morris was a co-author, with Mary Marris, of Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (1962), but that book does not include an entry for prioritize.

Morris treats prioritize and civilianize as equally outlandish recent coinages, suggesting that he expected both words to be unfamiliar to the vast majority of his readers. Somewhat surprisingly, Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) lists the date of first known occurrence of prioritize as 1964:

prioritize vt (1964) to list or rate (as projects or goals) in order of priority.

A usage note under the same dictionary's entry for the suffix -ize merits quotation in full:

usage The suffix -ize has been productive in English since the time of Thomas Nashe (1567–1601), who claimed credit for introducing it into English to remedy the surplus of monosyllabic words. Almost any noun or adjective can be made into a verb by adding -ize {hospitalize} {familiarize}; many technical terms are coined this way {oxidize} as well as verbs of ethnic derivation {Americanize} and verbs derived from proper names {bowdlerize} {mesmerize}. Nashe noted in 1591 that that his -ize coinages were being criticized, and to this day new words ending in -ize {finalize} {prioritize} are sure to draw critical fire.

The real mystery, I suppose, is why English speakers haven't adopted nasheize as a verb meaning "to transform a noun or adjective (especially a monosyllabic one) into a verb, by adding -ize to it."

As a final note I should point out that the Google Books match supposedly from 1950—Warren's Weed on the New York Law of Real Property, Volume 5—which the original poster of this question cited as a confirmed early occurrence of the term—is misdated, as can be seen by reading the paragraph preceding the one that appears in the posted question:

Law 1985, ch. 38 § 12, effective April 16, 1984, also amended Environmental Conservation Law § 27-1305(4) by adding two new subparagraphs, (e) and (f), as follows:

e. The department shall, in consultation with the department of health, evaluate existing site evaluation systems and shall develop a system to select and prioritize sites for remedial action. Such system shall incorporate environmental, natural resource and public health concerns.

The quoted language from subparagraph (e) thus appears to have been formulated not long—and certainly not decades—before April 1984.