English has no such word as ‘prioritise’


Though this is a Nation column, I write it for all Kenyans, including those for whom The Standard is the preferred daily print medium.

That is why I am perennially disappointed by the Standard’s refusal to heed my frequent advice that the English language has no such verb as “to proritise”.

I refer to the following headline on page 18 of The Standard of July 27: “Obama and Uhuru pledge to prioritise US, Kenya ties”.

A highly opinionated reader once riposted through the readers’ forum in the Nation that there was no statute to bar Kenyans and England’s other language clients from inventing words and contributing them to that language.

No, no such law has ever been imposed on any language.

Monsieur Chauvin and other highly self-important Frenchmen once tried it against American phrases creeping into French.

But they merely caused international scorn and came miserably a cropper.

Whenever a country is the source of certain important cultural commodities and the producer of such an impelling medium of culture convection as Hollywood and television drama, its language is sure to capture the youth’s imagination in all countries the world over.

France is one of the few language communities which have officially complained of America’s street culture — including dress modes and language — having invaded France.

By contrast, Anglo-America has been remarkably open-door.


English continues to freely ingest helpings from every language in the world.

In short, Kenyans are free to contribute to English not just words but, much more importantly, the ideas which such words represent.

In this way, world languages contribute to one another all the time.

Of course, depending on how they are situated on the line of exchange of world economic, political and cultural goods, some languages are better able than others to borrow words and ideas and are, therefore, much more influential worldwide.

The question, however, is: How can English contribute a word which it does not possess?

Although the non-governmental organisations (NGOS) — our world’s linguistically most challenged groups — are always urging their governments to “prioritise” something or other, the fact is that English does not have such a verb as “to prioritise”.

The way our NGOs use it, to “prioritise” seems to mean “to give precedence to” in terms of protocol, place or time).

The adjective prior, its root, means “previous” or “preceding” and is what has led to the noun priory, namely, a Roman Catholic house, led by a prior (for monks) and a prioress (for nuns).

Those who read books on the history of Western Christology are familiar with a Paris-based organisation called the Prieure de Sion (Priory of Zion), whose mission is to sell the idea that Western Europe is the place to which Jesus and his family fled Pontius Pilate’s Judaea and that blood remnants called Desposyni still exist there, with a godly right to rule the world.

I have condemned the verb to prioritise umpteen times before.

But a teacher with no punitive power has no choice but to keep trying.