Q&A: Acclimate vs Acclimatise/Acclimatize

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Each week, we chat about the quirks and anomalies of the English language. This week, we acclimatise to a regional difference…

Q: Good morning!
A: Yes, it’s definitely morning somewhere on the Internet right now.

Q: I always love to start the day with my fill of grammar. Actually, my grandpa used to say a similar thing, come to think of it…
A: I think we’ll move on. What’s on your mind today?

Q: Actually, a question from one of our newsletter subscribers, Dane, last month. He asked about Americans using “acclimate” instead of “acclimatise”. He said he first heard it during the Sydney Olympics back in 2000, when an American athlete was being interviewed. He wants to know if it’s an acceptable part of American English or is it, as he suspects, just plain wrong?
A: Well, hate to disappoint you Dane, but for Americans, it’s just plain right.

Q: Really? The same meaning as “acclimatise”? Like “I need to acclimate to this new work environment”?? Surely not. Sounds a bit odd.
A: It’s what they use. And they would probably say the same of our using “acclimatise” for everything. It is a pretty clear cut geographical difference, this one.

Q: Wow. How do they pronounce it?
A: Two ways. Many people say it in the same way you would begin saying “acclimatise” (with the “ise” left off the end) – uh-klahy-mit. But it also gets said with the emphasis on the first syllable – in a similar way to how we would pronounce “acclamation” ak-luh-meyt.

Q: I’ve never even HEARD this before. I felt sure Dane was mistaken. But I guess it’s a recent thing – maybe like he said, since the Sydney Olympics?
A: No way. In fact, “acclimate” actually PRE-DATES acclimatise.

Q: Shut the front door.
A: Seriously. It does. The American version dates from 1792, just after the French Revolution, when presumably they had a lot of new things to acclimate to. Meanwhile, it wasn’t till the 1830s that acclimatise came along.

Q: So what happened? Did the line get drawn then and there?
A: Again, no. Both words were fairly interchangeable in USA right through until around the 1970s, when “acclimate” finally won out. UK was a lot quicker to distance itself, with “acclimatise” feeling right at home in Victorian England by the 1850s. Interestingly, with the rise in “acclimate” in the past 30 years by the United States, there has also been a resurgence in its use in Britain.

Q: That seems to happen with a lot of words these days – language following USA’s influences.
A: No denying that they do have a way with words.

Q: Nice.
A: Thank you.

Q: So, do Americans use “acclimatise” at all?
A: Well, they actually do – although it’s spelt “acclimatize” over there. It often has a subtle meaning difference too, usually only reserved for the context of high altitude “acclimatizing”. You could say it has a higher purpose.

Q: You’re on fire this morning! So they spell it with the Z and we use the S then?
A: Well, if and when they use it, USA certainly spells theirs with the Z. However, in Britain it seems more people spell it “acclimatize” than “acclimatise” and it’s been that way since the 1920s. We’ll talk about that another time.

Q: Wow. But surely here in Australia we should always use “-ise” for words, while USA opts for “-ize”?
A: Yep, we’d recommend sticking to consistency with “-ise” for everything, despite spellings like “organization” etc creeping in (probably because of default Microsoft Word dictionary settings).

Q: Even “SEO” – for ‘Search Engine Optimization’?
A: Yes, we’d recommend it being ‘optimisation’ in this part of the world. Despite it being part of a collective phrase, it’s still just a word. And by always opting for ’S’, for a change, our way is the universal way.

Q: How?
A: Well, there are some words that must ALWAYS be spelt with “-ise” regardless of whether it’s American or British usage – meaning US users have to switch to S for a bunch of words, while we sit smugly and change nothing. Those words are: advertise, advise, apprise, chastise, circumcise,comprise, compromise, demise, despise, devise, disfranchise, enfranchise,enterprise, excise, exercise, improvise, incise, premise, revise, supervise, surmise, surprise, televise.

Q: Well, that’s a surprize.
A: Yeah, no.

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