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TWTS: Don't feel pressured to stop (or start) saying "pressurize"

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When we fly, we’re in a pressurized cabin. When we’re trying to get someone to do something, some of us may pressurize them, but it typically depends on which side of the pond we’re on.

Two different listeners have sent us questions about “pressurize” in recent weeks. As far as we know, these listeners aren’t in cahoots. If they are though, we admire their strategic prowess to get this question addressed.

Listener Sheila King wrote to us with this example of “pressurize,” which she found in the Guardian:

“Ginni Thomas has also been exposed as having pressurized lawmakers in Arizona and Wisconsin, demanding that they block certification of Biden’s win in those states in an effort to swing the outcome to Trump.”

King says, “To me ‘pressurized’ is what you do to whipping cream to make it ‘squirtable,’ not what you do to a person to try to bend them to your will.”

Listener Gerry Hoffmann wrote, “I just heard a BBC reporter interview an Oslo official about the war in Africa. The BBC reporter asked if one country might ‘pressurize’ another to seek peace. The official answered that he didn't think they could be ‘pressured.’”

Notice how both of these examples of “pressurize” come from British sources? That’s the key here: this is largely a British vs. American distinction.

The noun “pressure” is borrowed into English in the 1300s. It could refer to physical pressure, e.g. the pressure the doctor warns you about before giving you a shot. It could also refer to mental pressure, like the pressure of being under a deadline.

By the 1600s, “pressure” comes to refer to an instance of coercion, persuasion, or dissuasion. Then, after a functional shift, the noun “pressure” becomes a verb by the early 1900s, particularly in the case of coercion or persuasion.

The verb “pressurize” dates back to the 1940s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. However, the blog Grammarphobia has this example, from an 1887 issue of the Freeman’s Journal:

“If they can wheedle or pressurise the rackrenters into doing what the Lansdownes and Lismores have found it necessary to do, they shall have our hearty good will in the operation.”

“Pressurize,” as in producing pressure in an enclosed space like an airplane or pressure cooker, is around by the 1900s. By the 1960s, the verb “pressure” can also be used in this context.

As previously mentioned, there is an American vs. British English element here. In American English, “pressure” will mostly be used in the “coercion/persuasion” sense and “pressurize” in the “produce pressure in an enclosed space” sense.

In British English, there’s a slight preference for “pressure” over “pressurize” when it comes to the “coercion/persuasion” sense, but you will see both. The Cambridge Guide to English Usage finds that for every three uses of “pressure” to mean “coerce” or “persuade,” there are two uses of “pressurize.”

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.