Pressured vs. Pressurized

By Maeve Maddox

Many American speakers, myself included, have the impulse to laugh at statements like the following:

Mendendez and Ensign try to pressurize the White House

Should parents pressurize their children to get high marks in exams?

We laugh because we think that pressurize should apply only to things like airplane cabins and pressure cookers. Some people who object to the use of pressurize in the context of psychological pressure often become quite testy in their criticisms:

“I was pressurized into attending a girl’s college.” I don’t think she meant she had an air hose hooked up to an orifice to inflate her.

The idea is that pressurize should be reserved for technology, while pressure is the only acceptable verb to use when speaking of psychological pressure.

Neither British nor American dictionaries support the distinction. The online Oxford Dictionaries site offers the following among their examples of correct usage:

Don’t let anyone pressurize you into snap decisions.
People had been pressurized to vote.

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary gives this example:

Don’t let them pressurize you to do anything you don’t want to do.

The noun pressure has been in the language since the Middle Ages, but the verbs pressure and pressurize are fairly recent coinages. Both verb forms originated in North America.

The earliest OED citation for pressure with the meaning, “to apply pressure to, to coerce or persuade by applying psychological or moral pressure,” is from a Canadian publication dated 1911:

Extreme protection brought the formation of gigantic trusts, which pressured the consumers, who are now in open revolt against that regime.

The verb form pressurize was coined to describe the process of producing artificial atmospheric pressure. Pressurizing appears in 1940; pressurized in 1944. The use of pressurize to mean “to apply psychological pressure” is first documented in 1945:

Thus, selective service continues to ‘pressurize’ recalcitrant military unfits into war plants.

The use of quotation marks around pressurize indicates that the word was being used in a novel way.

The most that can be said about pressure vs pressurize is that American usage prefers to reserve pressurize for technical contexts and save pressure for psychological contexts. Speakers and writers of British English don’t seem to be aware of any such distinction:

A spokesperson of General Musharraf’s party said that fresh petition is an attempt to pressurize him to leave the country.

He [Pravin Togadia ]also said that this election is the best time to pressurize political parties to ensure safety of Hindus.

Brown’s administration “considered that any attempts to pressurize or lobby the Scottish government could be counterproductive to achieving this outcome

Bottom line: Americans can continue to laugh at the use of pressurize in a psychological context, but British speakers are not amused.

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5 Responses to “Pressured vs. Pressurized”

  • Dale A Wood

    The article says “many American speakers, myself included” – but I thought that Maeve’s roots were in the British isles. I thought that she just came to the U.S.A. to go to graduate school here, just like millions of scholars from overseas and Canada have done.
    DAW

  • venqax

    I am surprised at OED but not surprised by MW. I really think MW is just downright awful and really doesn’t deserve to be taken as an authority on anything language-related. That includes simply slang and common usage questions because they regularly get that wrong, too. There is a difference between being descriptive and just being sloppy, and MW doesn’t even distinguish between those two. It simply does not give good guidance by any standard. I never recommend it as a source to students. Ever. But I have nodded toward the Oxford sometimes. Maybe I need to reconsider that. The fact is that dictionaries are simply not an adequate source for usage guidance. They simply don’t distinguish between “could be A or could be B, depending on the context” and “A and B are interchangeable” types of issues. This article points out a perfect example. Pressurized and pressured mean the same thing? That is not just ridiculous, it’s malfeasant. Actually, it is esquivalient.

  • Dale A Wood

    I agree with venqax that to claim that “pressure” and “pressurize” are interchangeable in any way goes beyond absurdity. Perhaps “despicable” is the word for it.
    Gen. Eisenhower once called Gen. Patton despicable for slapping two sick soldiers, and Patton nearly got booted all the way back to the U.S.A. Fortunately “Ike” had other plans for Patton in France and Germany.
    DAW

  • thebluebird11

    Sorry…late catching up. I’ve been pressured (not pressurized) into working overtime. I have not had any hoses stuck anywhere, thank you very much, and I am not ready to explode.
    I will NEVER use these 2 words interchangeably, I don’t care what references are cited. To pressure is to use physical or psychological force to get someone or something to do (or not do) something. To pressurize is to instill something (like air) into something else, to “inflate” it in order to equal (or maybe exceed?) surrounding/ambient pressure. Those are my personal definitions as best as I can express myself.

  • Dale A Wood

    For example, take a fireman’s breathing tank and put a sufficient amount of air or oxygen into it. This pressurizes the tank, and the tank is now pressurized.
    The pressure inside the tank is then higher than the ambient pressure. (I am trying to use as many variations of “pressure” as possible, but there is still “pressurizing”.)
    D.A.W.

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