How the once-ridiculed word “finalize” slipped into mainstream American English

As a nation, we jargonized.
As a nation, we jargonized.
Image: AP Photo/Charles Krupa
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“I found the class really impactful.” “I have no bandwidth for this conversation.” “Can you ping me when you’re leaving the house?”

Lovers of the English language cringe when they hear corporate speak seep into everyday conversation. But the jargon-ization of language, it seems, is inevitable.

In the 1960s, the gatekeepers of American English worked themselves into a frenzy over what they deemed a new blight on the language: the word “finalize.” ”Finalize” was the “incentivize,” “impactful,” or “leverage” (as verb) of the 1960s, a piece of bureaucratic jargon and source of deep chagrin for language purists. ”It’s business-letter English, meaning acceptable and undesirable,” sports writer Red Smith said of such jargon in 1969.

“Finalize” was a new verb that meant agreeing on the final terms of something, without actually finishing it. If two people “finalized” a divorce, it didn’t actually mean the divorce was over. “We finalized the vacation” didn’t mean a trip had taken place. In the 1960s, use of the neologism seemed to create dramatic eye rolls in pedants, the way “-ify” (“Can we list-ify this?”) or the construction “the x for y” (“Tinder for dogs”) might today.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word back to 1920s Australia. A 1926 book called Timely Tips for New Australians included a glossary of Aussie-isms, including:

The established usage of the word ‘finalise’ (to complete) is..illustrative of the Australian variations of the English language… To ‘finalise a deal’ is an expression in daily use throughout the island-continent.

The word moved from Australia and New Zealand to the UK. Decades later, in 1958, US president Dwight D. Eisenhower started using it. Then in November 1961, someone at a press conference asked then-US president John F. Kennedy if he’d be taking a trip abroad.

“We have not finalized any plans,” Kennedy responded. The next week, no fewer than three news stories, one editorial, and one letter to the editor appeared in the New York Times about the president’s use of the word.

“President strikes blow for ‘finalize’ as English,” said one story. “Please be careful where you walk, because there may be some loose syntax lying about,” an opinion writer seethed at the president. “Meanwhile, let’s invite the cleaners in. They’ll have the know-how to get the job finishized.”

Kennedy’s use of “finalize” in 1961 was fuel to a fierce debate among American stickler communities of writers, critics, teachers, editors, and lexicographers. Earlier that year, Webster had released its third unabridged international dictionary. Derided by critics as too permissive, the edition included 100,000 new words and definitions, like “irregardless” and “ain’t.” ”Finalize” wasn’t new to the dictionary—it had appeared in the previous edition in 1934—but it became associated by nitpickers with the new debate.

“At a time when complaints are heard in many quarters that youths entering colleges and graduate schools are unequipped to use their mother tongue and that the art of clear communication has been impaired, the publication of a say-as-you-go dictionary can only accelerate the deterioration,” complained one 1961 editorial in the Times, right below two paragraphs on the Communist offensive in South Vietnam.

In a scathing response to the new dictionary, the Atlantic Monthly’s Wilson Follett described the new Webster dictionary’s selection as “the questionable, the perverse, the unworthy and the downright outrageous.”

Follett took issue with what he saw as grammatically lazy errors that lexicographers should defend against, like “due to” (“we are late due to traffic”), “center around” (“the plot centers around the drug trade”), and “like” as a conjunction meaning “as” or “as if” (“it looks like it’s raining”), all of which are common today. This use of “due to” was a mangling of the phrase “due to,” meaning “likely to” (“he’s due to arrive at 5pm”). “Center around” was problematic because, as Follett wrote, a center does not go around something; things go around it. “Like” as a conjunction (used to connect two clauses or sentences) is still considered informal today. To use “like” precisely, one should use it as a preposition (before a noun or pronoun), as in “this mug is like a vase.” Follett called these newly approved uses abominations.

Philip B. Gove, the editor of the third unabridged Webster dictionary, was a proponent of descriptive, rather than prescriptive, dictionary making. He thought lexicographers should capture language as people used it, not enforce only the meanings they deemed correct.

“The most fundamental thing about language is not whether it is good or bad, but how it behaves, how it is used,” he said at a lecture in 1965. When Gove died in 1972, his defense of “finalize” warranted a paragraph in his Times obituary, as evidence of his lexicographical mission.