On hacking, use, and utilize

I hate grammatical diatribes and so I hesitate to write one. (So stereotypical for an English professor to do this! Might as well get a suit jacket with elbow patches, etc.) But this diatribe—unlike all others before it—is important. It’s about hacking and making and reclaiming an excellent word from misuse.

I have often used this formula to evaluate the degree to which academic prose is overwrought:

instances of “utilize” / instances of “use” + “always already” = overwrought

OK, not really, but I think it would work. That is to say, when people use the word utilize, they generally just mean use, but want to add weight to their sentence. Example: “Scholars can utilize theories of ubermenschenism to cogitate on the prodigious output of members of the canine species.” Because weightiness is what academic prose is all about!

But utilize is not a synonym for use. In fact, it’s far better than that! Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary definition:

To make or render useful; to convert to use, turn to account.

  • 1807   J. Barlow Columbiad ix. 348   [To] Improve and utilise each opening birth, And aid the labors of this nurturing earth.
  • 1860   J. Ruskin Mod. Painters V. 333   Let all physical exertion..be utilized.

The key here—to me, at least—is the making and rendering. You can use something readymade, but if you have to do something to it to render it useful for your purposes, you must utilize it. Here’s the website Editage with a nice, concise explanation: 

utilize is not simply a synonym for use but suggests a less common alternative or deployment for a different purpose: to utilize ordinary ink for staining, to utilize a dew drop for magnification, or to utilize sand particles as the means of increasing friction, for instance.

Which means that the tragically misused word utilize is not just a convenient proxy for academic BS. When used correctly, utilize is a readymade term for hacking! Just think of the possibilities:

  • I utilized the coasters and boxes to make a standing desk. (true story—utilizing them right now!)
  • The kids utilized the couch, tent canvas and appliance boxes to build their fort.
  • The massive data trails we leave online are ripe for digital humanists to utilize.
Utilization of couch for fort, CC ZRecs on Flickr

Which brings me to an important question: can you utilize an Arduino? That is, can you utilize something for which uses are deliberately not proscribed? Perhaps if you use the Arduino as a coaster? (except for the awesome RFID/Arduino winebottle labeling coaster below)

Arduino-powered coaster, CC toddbot on flickr

At any rate, I say we reclaim the term from the depths to which its been rigorously plummeted, er, sunk.

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