Word watch: Anonymize

A discussion on the radio show "On The Media" about Google’s data gathering used this word: anonymize. You can click on the embedded link below to hear the talk between host Bob Garfield and Alissa Cooper of the Center for Democracy and Technology.



Here is the definition of anonymize from Wiktionary: to render anonymous. Merriam-Webster Online does not have an entry for the word. Neither does my copy of Webster’s New World College Dictionary. Dictionary.com has an entry and cites Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English. At OneLook.com, two medical dictionaries were cited. I believe the word comes from medical uses, when a researcher makes data anonymous so that a subject’s privacy can be protected. The Oxford English Dictionary offers this definition of anonymized:


Made anonymous, esp. by the removal of names or identifying particulars; spec. designating a form of medical screening, performed chiefly for statistical purposes, in which the identities of the subjects are unknown to the investigators.

We like to make new words by adding -ize to words we already know. See this entry in the American Heritage Book of English Usage. Merriam-Webster’s has an entry on the suffix -ize and notes that almost any noun or adjective can be turned into a verb with -ize: familiar familiarize, hospital – hospitalize. As the dictionary also notes, finalize and prioritize draw critical fire as jargon. John Bremner in "Words on Words" found fault with those words, among others. Theodore M. Bernstein in "The Careful Writer" wrote that the suffix "is one of the devices that have helped the English language grow. But it has also in some instances helped it grow stuffy or grotesque." H.L. Mencken was particularly dismissive of -ize words. (See his chapter on word formation.)

Early in my career, I was drilled by supervising editors to change finalize to complete or finish and to avoid any coinage that merely appended -ize (or -ism) to words. I would consider changing anonymize in a reporter’s copy — not in a quote, of course — to "make anonymous." Readers might stumble over the unfamiliar anonymize, and clarity is important in any writing but especially in journalism.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.