In a recent interview for Variety magazine, the Duchess of Sussex told its readers of her admiration for the American feminist Gloria Steinem, and spoke of how she planned a party for her.
“I really wanted to celebrate her,” she said, “at what I thought was just going to be a small and intimate birthday lunch. I envisioned it being us eating sandwiches in this cottage she was staying at. Instead, it was an extravaganza – by the way, as she deserves.”
“To envision” is becoming a quite common alternative to the verb “to envisage”. Modern readers and speakers of British English may find it hard to credit, but this word is a new invention. It doesn’t occur in the late twentieth-century edition of the OED. It is given in Chambers without comment, defined as meaning “to see as in a vision”, though with the secondary sense of “to visualise” or “to envisage”. It’s clear that the Duchess of Sussex wasn’t using “envision” in any visionary sense – unless her sandwiches were of exceptional rarity – but in a much more general way as a synonym for “imagine”. Chambers doesn’t specifically attribute the word to the Americans, but in that sense it is definitely American (though I don’t believe the Duchess of Sussex had anything to do with its emergence).
Aside from remarking that the new word has been adopted from American into British English with the usual phenomenal and unquestioning speed, I object to this development only on the grounds that it threatens a perfectly useful everyday word, while substituting one that, novel as it is, ought to retain its inbuilt connotation of the exceptional: with its suggestion of a revelation or perception of something wonderful, “envision” should surely be kept for contexts in which the out-of-the-ordinary is implied.
It is justified, surely, by the context of this phrase in the Spectator (30 October 2021): “When Thomas Bodley, at the turn of the seventeenth century, envisioned a new library for Oxford University…” We can well imagine a new library for Oxford University as occurring to Bodley in the form of an inspiration or a “vision”. But I rather suspect the writer used the word as it mostly is nowadays, as an ordinary work-horse of a word, to be applied in any situation. The Duchess’s plans for “eating sandwiches in this cottage” had nothing visionary about them, but perhaps she intended to imply that they were, nonetheless, special. The “extravaganza” that appeared instead of the sandwiches obviously was.
“To envisage” was until recently the normal English verb used to signify “to imagine” or “to bring to the mind’s eye”. Once again, I fear, I’m tempted to explain “envision” as an ignorant misunderstanding of the older word. (“Envisage” comes from the French envisager, but it’s not very old, anyway: Samuel Johnson didn’t know it. The OED’s first citation is from Keats in 1820.) The American Merriam-Webster Thesaurus gives “envision” as the primary form of the verb, recognising “envisage” as an alternative that is wholly synonymous (and by implication dispensable). I wish we could use the two verbs in ways that distinguish one from the other, with “envision” specifically applied to the marvellous or the new, something at least a little exciting. Would that be too much to envision?
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