Burgle vs. burglarize

In American English, the verb burgle, meaning to rob, is regarded as a humorous backformation from burglar, and burglarize is the preferred term in serious contexts.

In British English, it’s the other way around. Burgle is a legitimate verb, used even in sober news reports, and burglarize (or burglarise, as it would probably be spelled if it were an accepted word in British English) is virtually nonexistent in serious contexts. Some Britons view burglarize as an American barbarism.

Irish, Australian, New Zealand, and South African writers tend to go along with British writers on this. Canadians prefer burglarize.

Burglar has a long history going back at least to the Medieval Latin burglator and probably beyond. Burgle and burglarize both came about in the late 19th century—neither is significantly older than the other—developing separately on opposite sides of the Atlantic.


For example, these major American publications prefer burglarize in serious contexts:

They are accused of entering vehicles parked on the 1900 block of Muirfield to burglarize them. [Chicago Sun-Times]

When my son’s apartment was burglarized in March and his MacBook Pro stolen, I immediately wished it had some kind of tracking program installed on it. [Houston Chronicle]

Dallas Police are looking for two men who were caught on video burglarizing a music store and later pawning the stolen instruments. [Dallas Morning News]

And British publications use burgle with no humor intended:

They are also charged with conspiracy to burgle Bush Barn Farm and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. [BBC]

A bride-to-be who burgled her friend’s home has had her curfew lifted so she can stay out late on her wedding day.  [Daily Mail]

In ­Switzer-land, where users participate in a drugs programme, there has been a 90% fall in addicts burgling homes. [Mirror]

5 thoughts on “Burgle vs. burglarize”

  1. Out of interest, what’s the preferred North American term for the crime itself then – does one still carry out “a burglary” and get imprisoned for the act of “burglary”, or does the term similarly mutate? I’ve never noticed any mention of another variant, so I assume it’s not so…?

    The thing about the transatlantic dichotomy here is that either way it’s one of those combination of sounds (as in ‘gurgle’) that have a slight inherent silliness to them, to the extent that if someone were asked to come up with random gibberish words or a transliteration of incoherent mumbling they’re quite likely to err toward nonsense like nurgle furgle blurgle. So it’s easy to see why if one were brought up in the North American tradition, the rest-of-the-world version could sound comical, which is presumably why even this balanced and reasonable site feels the need to make repeated exhortations in this article that there’s “no humor intended”, it’s “used even in sober news reports”, as if to convince that there’s not some elaborate practical joke at work.

    The above, then, is why probably even to British ears “burgle” subconsciously has a silly ring to it – so in those circumstances imagine just how much more preposterous “burglarize” (or our hypothetical “burglarise”) sounds…?! As implied in the article, it sounds like a comedy back-formation from the already odd-sounding ‘burglar’.

    The distinction, I suppose, is that it depends on which half of the concept you regard as begetting the other: essentially it appears as though to a North American it’s called ‘burglarizing’ because it’s done by a burglar, while in the rest of the English-speaking world’s logic, they’re called a ‘burglar’ because they burgle. To me, though, what makes the American version baffling is if you compare a closely-related term: a ‘robber’ is so-called because they rob – there’s no suggestion anywhere that robbers ‘robberize’, is there??

    • “Billy “The Lockpick” Smith went to prison at 17 as merely a petty thief, but he was soon singled out by a hardened gang of housebreakers who considered this impressionable young man a prime target to be burglarized.”

  2. So, if I’m unfortunate enough to ever find myself in north amerika will I see policemen policaris(z)ing? Painters paintaris(z)ing? Rapists raparis(z)ing? Anglers fisharis(z)ing? Drivers drivaris(z)ing? Murderers murderis(z)ing? Cyclists cyclaris(z)ing? Judges judgaris(z)ing? Baristas baristaris(z)ing?

    I can live with the sun arising but I hate to think what I’ll do with this bottle of Listerine.

  3. In ­Switzer-land, where users participate in a drugs programme, there has been a 90% fall in addicts burgling homes. [Mirror]

    There is no such place as Switzer-land! it’s Switzerland


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