Not The Target Market

Grammar Tip: Use Does Not Equal Utilize

Consider this line from Joy in the Morning by P.G. Wodehouse:

“Her ladyship wishes you to convey it to its destination personally, realizing that, should she entrust it to the ordinary channels, the gift will be delayed in its arrival beyond the essential date.”

No one talks like this. Certainly not in the 21st century and I doubt very much in any preceding one, either. P.G. Wodehouse uses this hyper-correct and overly formal style as a signature for Jeeves, his hyper-correct and overly formal ‘gentleman’s personal gentleman.’ When reading a Bertie and Jeeves novel, you don’t need the tag “Jeeves said” because you know it’s him speaking. Every time.

The reason Jeeves sounds like Jeeves is because he uses words with French or Latin roots. To make this a bit clearer, here is a quick history lesson: modern English is not merely an extension of old English (or Anglo-Saxon), a Germanic language. Modern English comes from the mash-up that happened when William the Conqueror (from Normandy, France) imposed French on Anglo-Saxon Britain in 1066. In reality, the Norman upper class continued to speak French for the most part, while their Anglo-Saxon servants continued to speak old English, which as time went on acquired an overlay of French vocabulary. Fast forward four centuries and presto-chango, by 1400 or so, everyone – high and low – speaks a French/English jumble, which we now call Middle English or Chaucer’s English.

This melding of languages is why English often has two words for many things. Consider these synonyms:

Old English                           French

happiness                              felicity

dress                                      clothe

deep                                       profound

ghost                                      phantom

smell                                      odor

drink                                       beverage.

green                                      verdant

This list could go on for pages, but even just these few show (illustrate?) that the French words still have something of a sophistication or uber-correctness or pretentiousness often associated (linked?) with an ‘upper class’ education or lifestyle. Jeeves, himself, is not upper class, but he is much smarter (more intelligent?) than those he serves, and he is determined (steadfast?) to stick to his high principles (standards?)

Bertie, his employer and secure in his upper class status, is not worried about standards and the next line in the story is Bertie translating Jeeves into simple, predominantly Anglo-Saxon words of one syllable: “You mean, if she posts it, it won’t get there in time?”

In the eternal scheme of things, our origins don’t matter. We are all equal in our God-given dignity; but that doesn’t mean we are all the same. The minute we open our mouths, our pronunciation, our vocabulary and our grammar sort us by education, class, region, age and gender. Some people are comfortable in their own skins and don’t really care what others think. They say what they say in words they are comfortable with. Others want to appear well-educated and/or from a higher social class and so consciously adopt the vocabulary and pronunciations from that class.

Think Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Boo-kay) from Keeping Up Appearances here. The trouble is, it’s very hard to get it all completely right; it’s easy to overdo it. No one would think for minute that either Hyacinth (or Jeeves for that matter) was born into an educated, upper-class family.

And so I finally get to the point of this post: utilize, which seems to appear in every newspaper or magazine article, in every PowerPoint slide, and in every resume. It is a Hyacinth Bucket word.

Utilize is not, I repeat, NOT, a formal, fancy, grown-up, upper class, well-educated version of use. It is not what you write to show you are intelligent. It is not what you say in formal situations. It is not what you say to show that you are sophisticated. To someone who has studied language, it sounds pretentious, as there is never a case, again I repeat, never a case, when the simple, three-letter word use is incorrect.

Use has been around since the middle 1100s. It is one of the words that emerged early in that Anglo-Saxon/French mash-up. Utilize, on the other hand, is a fairly new word to English, only recorded for the first time in the early 19th century. It comes directly from the French utiliser, which means – wait for it – “to use.”

Until the last twenty years or so, utilize appeared in only a handful of very specific situations. One was when the speaker intended to make it clear that an object was being employed for something different from its original purpose. For example: To escape from the dungeon, she utilized her hair pin as a picklock. (Note that it would be perfectly correct to say use here, but utilize gives the extra sense of resourcefulness.)

Another meaning for utilize emphasized the practical or profitable usefulness of something. Consider the difference (or what used to be the difference) between The children were not able to use the new computer for their homework and The children were not able to utilize the new computer for their homework.

In the first, the meaning is that something prevented the children from using the computer, perhaps their parents had forbidden them from touching it, perhaps someone else was using it, perhaps there was a power failure.

In the second, the sense is (or used to be) that the computer was useless for the task at hand. Perhaps the homework required a program the computer didn’t have or perhaps the assignment didn’t require a computer in the first place.

As a linguist I know all about language change. It’s good. It happens. I’m all for it. What drives me crazy in this case is the pleased and cheerful ignorance of the mob in assuming utilize is the adult word (i.e. serious and educated), thereby losing nuances we used to have. Yet, I suppose now that emojis pass as communication, delicate nuances are out of fashion.

Jeeves would never approve of this sloppiness. He might be a little over-the-top at times, but he is always correct, even if Bertie does have to translate for him.

“I am sorry, sir. I have used every endeavor to hit upon a solution of the problem confronting his lordship, but I regret to say that my efforts have not been crowned with success.”

“A wash-out, he says…”

Just like the effort to reclaim the subtle difference between use and utilize, I’m afraid.

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