How The Times Has Changed

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"President Strikes Blow for Finalize as English", NYT 11/30/1961:

In the course of his highly articulate new conference today, President Kennedy struck one grating note for lovers of the English language. He used that bureaucratic favorite "finalize."

"We have not finalized any plans," Mr. Kennedy said when asked about a possible trip overseas.

The new edition of Webster's Unabridged Dictionary defines finalize as "to put in final or finished form." It gives as an example the use of the word by former President Eisenhower.

A grieving linguist commented today that "Eisenhower began the process, and Kennedy is finalizing it."

And not satisfied with one little joke, the editors followed up with another — "Finalized?", 11/30/1961:

Mr. President, are you sure you gave the old place a thorough housecleaning after you moved in? It seems that your predecessor left a few loose words behind that you have inadvertently picked up. When you said yesterday, "We have not finalized any plans," it sounded for all the world like a previous occupant who once said, as quoted in Webster's Third (or Bolshevik) International: "Soon my conclusions will be finalized." In any case, please be careful where you walk, because there may be some loose syntax lying about. Meanwhile, let's invite the clearners in. They'll have the know-how to get the job finishized.

These small flights of wit are reproduced in James Sledd and Wilma R. Ebbitt, Dictionaries and THAT Dictionary: A Casebook on the Aims of Lexicographers and the targets of reviewers, 1962, as part of their documentation of the reactions to the publication of the (in)famous third edition of Websters's Unabridged in 1961.

(I was inspired re-read Sledd & Ebbitt by reading David Skinner's The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published. More on Skinner's book, which I enjoyed enormously, in a later post.)

The entry for finalize in Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (published 1989) says that

It has been fashionable to scorn finalize for more than four decades now. Its magic year seems to have been 1942 […]

Even as late as 1980, commentators were writing that President Eisenhower had introduced the word, if not actually coined it. And all the while it had been sitting quietly at the the foot of page 948 in Webster's Second 1934 […]

Evidence in our files and in the OED Supplement shows that finalize is used in all the major English-speaking areas of the world.

Among the examples cited is one from S.J. Perelman in the New Yorker, 27 June 1953:

In this decent if oppressive garb, she receives from Orloff a ring plighting their troth, and amid protracted twittering the couple finalize plans to marry at once.

Meanwhile, the use of the lexeme finalize has continued to increase, and the Times has changed. A recent editorial, "Safeguards Against Speculative Banking", includes the sentence:

The Volcker Rule has yet to be finalized.

And in a story by Keith Bradsher, "As China Weighs Shifting Economic Policy, a Rivalry for Its Stewardship", NYT 10/19/2012, we find:

While the responsibilities of China’s new leadership team have not yet been finalized — and are not expected to be announced until the end of the Party Congress — the emerging consensus is that Mr. Wang is likely to be promoted to a position on the Standing Committee of the Politburo, China’s top decision-making body, but not to have day-to-day control of the bureaucracy that oversees China’s still largely state-driven economy.

Or Ben Protess, "Regulators Propose Capital Rules for Derivatives Trading", NYT 10/17/2012:

Ms. Schapiro and the agency’s commissioners voted unanimously, 5-0, to advance the plan. It now enters a 60-day public comment period, after which the S.E.C. and other federal regulators must finalize the rules.

In recent Anglophone cultural history,  newly-salient instances of quasi-regular derivational morphology seem to take about half a century to become de-scorned. (See e.g. "In this day of slack style", 9/2/2012, discussing reactions to the nounification of urge.) Presumably a half century is how long it takes the last of the original scorners to die, or at least to abandon their positions of authoritah.

(Of course, not all new derivations are scorned in the first place.)


  1. Dick Margulis said,

    October 20, 2012 @ 11:17 am

    It seems reasonable that there's a natural rhythm to this process based on transmission of language from one generation to the next. There might be some variation based on changes in the when people choose to have children, average lifespan, and what percentage of children are in close contact with their grandparents as lifestyles change over time. But 50 years or so seems about right, intuitively.

  2. Michael W said,

    October 20, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

    The commentary from a 'grieving linguist' strikes me as interesting. Nowadays such quotes could be found on the internet, arising without any prompting.
    I doubt it was anything like that in 1961. Maybe there were some notable people who made public comments. Notable linguists? I don't know. I wonder now when linguists started to be consulted by the press as wardens of language.

    [(myl) I believe that this is a different sense of linguist, meaning here something like "someone who knows and cares about (the alleged purity of) language". In 1961, I doubt that the editors of the NYT had daily conversations with anyone with professional qualifications as a linguist in the sense of "scientist or scholar with a specialization in speech and language". I also doubt that someone of that description could have been the grieving peever identified in the editorial note. Though you never know…]

  3. david said,

    October 20, 2012 @ 1:26 pm

    It looks like the linguist moved ahead of the philologists in the thirties

  4. Garrett Wollman said,

    October 20, 2012 @ 2:54 pm

    Mark's final sentence raises an interesting question for the sociolinguists: why are some new words subject to scorn and ridicule, while other words, derived by the same process for similar functions, considered completely unremarkable? One can imagine that one reason may be that some words become associated with a particular despised group — like bureaucrats, lawyers, management consultants, or journalists — but that surely can't explain everything. (Of course, the null hypothesis would be that it's simply a matter of random chance. That could easily be the correct answer.)

  5. Joshua said,

    October 20, 2012 @ 10:38 pm

    Although I can understand why some self-appointed language guardians object to some words, I don't understand what the problem was with "finalize." It's fairly easy to spell it, pronounce it, and understand its meaning. And the New York Times writers didn't even suggest what verb JFK should have used instead of "finalize," which suggests to me that it didn't have an adequate substitute already in common use.

  6. Graeme said,

    October 21, 2012 @ 2:50 am

    Lacking a time machine, I imagine folk back then preferred the verb 'to complete'.

  7. Michael said,

    October 21, 2012 @ 3:40 am

    Can we trust Google's ngram viewer? It reports a use of finalize in 1890!

  8. F said,

    October 21, 2012 @ 3:19 pm

    Is "clearners" the NYT's typo or yours?

  9. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    October 21, 2012 @ 5:58 pm

    @Michael: Probably not. Searching Google Books for uses of "finalize" in 1890, I get seven hits. Six of these are easily found to be wrong (three scannos of Italian "finanze", one scanno of "finally", one hit in a book from 1967) or irrelevant (a Spanish work using "finalize" for "finalice", that is, as the third-person present subjunctive of "finalizar"). The seventh is in the Thomas Hardy's 1873 novel A Pair of Blue Eyes; although Google Books won't show me more information for this one, it nonetheless seems that it must be a mistake of some sort, because other sources do not show that novel as containing that word.

  10. toodledoo said,

    October 22, 2012 @ 6:02 am

    "Amid protracted twittering"? Now there's an anachronism.

  11. KathrynM said,

    October 22, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

    Michael and Ran Ari-Gur: On the other hand, there is this:

    Page 220. It is possible, of course, that "finalize" (and "finalization," used on the preceding page) are being used in a specialized sense.

  12. NCSmith said,

    October 22, 2012 @ 4:33 pm

    … and no one has yet commented on the author's use of "authoritah". I guess we have a greater tolerance for neologisms (or neo-spellings) now than folks did in the 60s.

  13. Michael said,

    October 23, 2012 @ 3:09 am

    KathrynM: Thank you for that fascinating piece! Apart from the 1767 use (specialized or not) of finalize, the discourse itself is of considerable interest.

  14. Chandra said,

    October 23, 2012 @ 1:25 pm

    @NCSmith – It seems to me that neologisms borrowed from popular culture (in this case, South Park) and used intentionally for humorous effect tend to be exempt from peeving.

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