Living in a Material(ized) World

When something “materializes”, what happens exactly?

If I’m on the spot, I’ll say something goes from a state of being invisible or nonexistent to visible or existent.

But there are a lot of gray areas there… magical, even spooky stuff.

There’s a nice fat usage note on “materialize” in the American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition. Let’s break it down:

“In its original sense, materialize is used without an object to mean ‘to assume material form,’ as in Marley’s ghost materialized before Scrooge’s eyes…”


*chains rattle*


So it sounds like back in Dickens’s day, the word was reserved for the literal description of an invisible thing reverse-fading (is that what you call it?) into visibility.

What have we done since then?

“But these uses are probably less common nowadays than the two extended senses of the verb. In the first, the meaning is roughly ‘to appear suddenly,’ as in No sooner had we set the menu down than a waiter materialized at our table.

I like the idea of “extended sense”. Isn’t extending sense how language evolves?

The waiter wasn’t a chain-lugging ghost who emerged from some ether to take a mozzarella stick order.

He just walked over to the table. But as far as the hungry, distracted diners were concerned, he may as well have pulled a Jacob Marley.

Not everybody is happy about this:

“Some critics have labeled this use as pretentious or incorrect, but it has been around for more than a century, appears in the writing of highly respected writers, and seems a natural extension of the original sense.”

Have these critics ever succeeded in shutting down a change to English? I’m imagining  Gandalf and the Balrog: (“YOU SHALL NOT PASS!“)

If you know of such an instance, please let me know in the comments.

One more step in the evolution of materialize:

“Materialize tends to be applied to things or events that have been foreseen or anticipated, and usually occurs in negative constructions: The promised subsidies never materialized. It was thought the community would opposed the measure, but no new objections materialized.”

So we’ve ended up at materialize referring to: Things that never existed continuing to never exist.

And even if they came into existence–objections, subsidies, whatever–they would still just be intangible words or numbers.

I’d say this is fitting in our increasingly digital world of bitcoins, blog posts, information products, et al. What can we still touch?

The tangible is fading, like Jacob Marley back into the fireplace.

What does the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come have to show us tonight?

2 Replies to “Living in a Material(ized) World”

  1. I think a similar phenomenon these days is that time can now see things. As in “3pm sees the exodus of students from the school building”, or “February 26th saw the launch of an exciting new product…”. In my opinion, sight is an attribute belonging to members of the animal kingdom. I edit a school website, and add News items, sent to me by students and staff, which often include such statements. I’d send you a link to an example, but I think I’ve edited them all out!

    What do you think? Is it permissible to use this linguistic device occasionally, or should it be banned from the English language?

  2. Hey Sue,

    Right on… I had never taken note of that as a trend, but now that you’ve pointed it out I definitely see it.

    You know the old Bing Crosby Christmas song “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”?

    There’s a lyric in there: “Christmas Eve will find me / Where the love light gleams…”

    I didn’t realize Christmas Eve was looking for him!

    But to your question: I generally accept changes to the language. As I mentioned in the post, once it gets to the point where people are noticing it, I don’t think there’s any turning back. Right?

    Thanks for the comment. May you have a mindful day 🙂

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