Culture

“Utilize” is the worst word in the English language

Don’t utilize it
Culture

“Utilize” is the worst word in the English language

Don’t utilize it

There are many bad words in English, but only one worst word. That word is utilize. Although I would never defend it on aural grounds, the way it rolls off the tongue — or rather does not roll off the tongue — is not its chief problem. What's truly offensive about utilize is that it is useless.

Utilize means “to make use of,” of course. I wonder what else means that. Oh, right: Use. Merriam-Webster's first definition for use as a transitive verb — after the archaic habituate — is “to put into action or service : avail oneself of : employ.” Employ, by the way, is another synonym for utilize.

I suppose Merriam-Webster is right when it notes that utilize suggests “the discovery of a new, profitable, or practical use for something.” But I'm not sure I've ever heard utilize used in a sentence that wouldn't have worked just as well with use. She ran out of string so she utilized/used a shoelace to wrap the birthday gift. He couldn't find bacon so he utilized/used anchovies to start the tomato sauce. Alexander Fleming realized that he could utilize/use mold to kill harmful bacteria.

(One exception: The psychiatrist and science blogger Scott Alexander wrote on Twitter not long ago, “Use ‘use’ to mean 'employ for a purpose’; use ‘utilize’ to mean ‘convert to utils’. EG ‘The AI utilized the solar system's mass.’” But I think that was his way of saying: “Never use utilize.”)

Obviously utilize isn't the only word that could drop out of English without damaging our ability to express ourselves fully. English is rich in synonyms. It overflows with them. Foreigners may marvel at the abundance of English words that mean the same thing. We have plenty of ways of expressing plenty, to cite just one example.

Utilize, though, is nothing but a longer, bulkier, more pretentious version of, essentially, the same word. It doesn't just mean the same thing as use; it is the same thing. Both use and utilize come to us, circuitously, from the Latin Uti, which according to the Online Etymological Dictionary means “profit by, take advantage of, enjoy, apply, consume” or — simply — “make use of.”

Other synonyms, even exact synonyms, are useful to writers in particular because they allow for linguistic variety. Here again utilize is useless because it's so similar in sound to use. He used the manual lawnmower while she utilized the electric one. No thanks.

There's beauty in uselessness, sometimes. Not everything needs a purpose. But shouldn't utilize have one, of all words? What's especially offensive about the uselessness of utilize is the profound gap between what you might call form and function. It's useless even as it connotes usefulness.

Don't use utilize. Utilize use instead.

Juliet Lapidos is the op-ed editor at The Los Angeles Times.
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