Academic puffery watch: ‘Utilizing’ edition

If you split hairs, you can argue there is a use for utilize that differentiates it from use. In the Oxford English Dictionary it’s all pretty circular:

  • Utilise: To make or render useful; to convert to use, turn to account.
  • Use: To put to practical use; esp. to make use of in accomplishing a task.

You could get into variants, inflections, and origins. But it’s not worth it. In academic writing I don’t think people do that. I think they use utilize when they are committing puffery (“The action or practice of ‘puffing’ someone or something; extravagant or undeserved praise, esp. for advertising or promotional purposes; writing, etc., intended to have this effect.”)

So it is with heavy heart that I report what could be a comeback for utilize, or at least a stall in the course of its demise. I have this from two sources. First, from the JSTOR academic database:

utilize-coming-back.-jstor

And second, from the general corpus of published material (mostly books) that is in Google Books, using the American English collection for a longer period:utilize-coming-back.

Both show a rise of utilize from obscurity to a peak in the 1970s. Note the peak in academia is about twice as high as the peak in the general collection, at 10.7% compared with 5.3%. But both showed very promising declines until the early 2000s. In retrospect, we see the decline was slowing already in the 1990s. We should have been more vigilant.

Maybe this is just a reversal of progress toward pretending we are above excessive puffery. Which I think is a shame.

This all has something to do with this passage from the chapter titled, “Is a Disinterested Act Possible?” in Practical Reason by Pierre Bourdieu (including the length of the sentence itself):

bourdieu-disinterested

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Academic puffery watch: ‘Utilizing’ edition

  1. The British corpus in nGrams shows the same dip in the 1940s and decline starting in the late 70s, but the percentage is lower than in the US corpus. (You have to try both the “s” spelling and the “z” spelling — the Brits apparently can’t figure out which one they like.) I also wonder why you looked only at the “-ing” form and not the present and past.

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  2. Scott Rose

    For what it’s worth as a matter of side interest, in French, the verb “user” specifically means “to wear out” and does not mean “utliser,” to use.

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  3. alleym

    I’m so very glad you called out “utilize.” It’s a pet peeve of mine. There are NO instances I have ever seen where you could not replace with use and get exactly the same meaning. I have heard that utilize has some very specific meanings in chemistry, but aside from this: puffery.

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  4. Looks like academics, anyhow, may have read The Elements of Style (1918), which specifically designates “utilize” as puffery.

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