Finding America

Me and Tarah

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Representing something of an irony, one of the first British/American word differences that truly struck me after moving to the U.S. was acclimatise vs. acclimate. The former—acclimatise—is the predominantly British English (BrE) variation on the word (meaning to "become accustomed to a physical or mental change"), while the latter is used predominantly in American English (AmE). Like many Brits, I initially assumed that the AmE variation was simply an extension of the already existing BrE variation. How wrong I was.

The following is a history of both the word acclimate and acclimatise (or acclimatize), as listed on the Online Etymology Dictionary:
Acclimate: 1792, from French acclimater, verb formed from à "to" + climat. Related: Acclimated; acclimating.
Acclimatise: 1836; a more recent formation than acclimate and replacing it in many uses. 
As we can see, acclimate—the predominant usage in American English—predates that of acclimatise by some 44 years.

Notice I used the word "predominant." This is because neither usage is 100% exclusive to Britain or the United States and, indeed, each has enjoyed a level of popularity on either side of the Pond since their respective introductions to the language. Actually, within American English, both acclimatize (perceived U.S. spelling. More on that later.) and acclimate had spent the better part of 150 years neck and neck in the battle for supremacy. It was not until the 1970s that acclimate finally began to pull away from its long-time rival to earn predominant status (see the Ngram below).

Ngram: American English

Intriguingly, the race for predominance has not been anywhere near as close in British English. Since the 1850s, the word acclimatise has stormed ahead of acclimate, with peak usage of the former coming in the early twentieth century. That said, there has been something of a resurgence of acclimate in British English since around the mid-1960s (see Ngram below), possibly due to an influx of American popular culture.

Ngram: British English

Meanwhile, when we compare acclimatise and acclimatize (the perceived U.S. spelling), we make an interesting discovery. While it is true that Americans almost always incorporate -ize, the same cannot be said of the British when it comes to -ise.

Remember when I said that acclimatise peaked in the early twentieth century? Well, that's because at around this time, acclimatize (with a "z") was starting to take flight in British English. Indeed not only did it eventually overtake the alternative spelling—peaking shortly after World War II—but it remains the predominant spelling in British English to this day. See the final Ngram below.

Ngram: British English

Which do YOU say? Acclimatise or acclimate? Let us know in the comments below.

This article was written by Laurence Brown. Laurence is a British expat living in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is a contributor for BBC America and has written for Anglotopia. He is Editor-in-chief of Lost in the Pond and loves nothing more than to share these articles with anglophiles, expats, and other interested parties on social media. Follow Lost in the Pond on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

1 comment:

  1. In science, these two words have distinctive meanings. 'Acclimate' means to become accustomed or adjusted to change in one environmnetal parameter (say, temperature) all other things being equal. 'Acclimatize' means to become accustomed or adjusted to a new environment in all its complexity (for example, acclimatize to Louisiana climate). So if I were talking about the language, I would propably say acclimate (or more likely, get used to). If I was talking about the US in general, I would say acclimatize.


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