Words to Live By

Life Lesson #35: Never implicitly trust anyone who uses the word “utilize.”

So this might seem like a pretty harsh blanket statement, but honestly, there is no real need in the English language for this word. We already have “use,” which is shorter and expresses the same concept.

“Oh, but there’s a difference,” I can hear someone protesting. No, not really. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “use” as a verb has been around since the 1200s (the Middle English period). It came to us through Old French, and ultimately from Latin. Meanwhile, “utilize” entered the language in the 1800s as an adaptation of the French utilizer (“to use”), which ultimately came from… wait for it… Latin.

THEY ARE THE SAME WORD.

The one glaring difference? “Utilize” is two syllables longer, which means it’s inefficient, and one should always question inefficient speech. It’s an overt sign of manipulation.

(“But I don’t manipulate!” says the maligned “utilize”-er. Um, yes, you do. Communication is manipulation.)

There’s this prevalent belief among English speakers that words have hierarchies of worth. One of those hierarchies is as follows:

  • Long words > short words

I blame the academic aristocracy, because they’re a bunch of pretentious jerks. But I digress. While there are many longer words that describe something better than their shorter synonyms, “utilize” is not one of these. Its meaning is literally “to make useful” (or, more succinctly, “to use”). So basically, most anyone who prefers “utilize” over “use” in everyday speech is buying into that bogus hierarchy. “Utilize” is longer. Longer words are superior. Those who use longer words are, therefore, superior.

(Again, I am not declaiming the use of long words in general, as the canon of my prose should attest. There is a marked phenomenon in language use, though, that when people want to sound smart, they switch to longer, more Latin-/Greek-based words. I.e., when an individual desires to project an elevated level of understanding with regards to a particular subject of knowledge, said individual will employ a diction suffused with intricate and typically non-Germanic vocabulary for the purpose of describing the aforementioned subject, so as to subtly establish his or her intelligence in addition to the information he or she overtly intends to convey. I think you get the point.)

Now, exceptions to the rule:

  1. Poets. Poetry isn’t meant to be efficient. Poets can get away with all the flowery crap they want. We’re not required to like their poetry, but we’ll give them a pass. Unless they’re really bad poets, in which case we will roll our eyes behind their backs.
  2. Foreigners. As above noted, “utilize” came to English from French. It also has a cognate in Spanish and Italian. As it’s always easier to remember a native-language cognate, we can let this one slide if the speaker is of foreign origin.
  3. College essays. We’ve all done it: pull out the big words, cram them into a paper/proposal/report, act like you’re an expert, receive praise accordingly. If you fooled others, good for you. If you fooled yourself, for shame. Usage in school essays gets a pass because no one really takes these assignments seriously. Once you’re out in the real world, ditch the BS. There’s no need to beat people over the head with the Brickbat of Inflated Vocabulary unless you need to render them senseless because your true content is lacking.

Again, communication is manipulation. It’s meant to manipulate people to think, to feel, to act. That’s not a bad thing. But “utilize” is such a ham-handed, obvious red flag for manipulation that any time it’s used, you should immediately question the speaker. Question what he says, question why she chose to say it that way, question the intended outcome. A wise man once remarked, “It is intelligent for me to follow the more intelligent,” but it’s not intelligent to follow the flim-flam artist who tosses out big words as proof of smarts and expects you just to fall in line with a narrative that could be as shady as all get-out. Big words do not an expert make.

And that’s my take on the subject.

PS – I’m not actually telling anyone to stop using the word. If you routinely use the word “utilize” and you don’t fit into one of the above exceptions, by all means, carry on. (It’s nice to spot the untrustworthy ones from afar. They’re so much easier to analyze that way.)

2 Responses to Words to Live By
  1. Jack Gnildarts says:

    So if I use utilize or I utilize use it has the same meaning? 😉

    • kstradling says:

      In everyday usage, yes. But one of them makes you look shady and manipulative to anyone in the know. 😉

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