Q From Myfanwy Oldershaw, Australia: Why do people in North America tend to use the word envision when there is the perfectly acceptable word envisage? Is this merely cultural snobbery, or does the usage run deeper? Is this another case of divergent linguistic evolution? Should it annoy me so much?
A Don’t let it get to you. Actually, both envisage and envision have had their critics.
The older of the two is envisage, which came into English from French near the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was roundly condemned by some grammarians, such as Henry Fowler, who called it “an undesirable Gallicism”. He pointed out that there several suitable alternatives available, such as recognise, contemplate, realise, view, face, confront, and regard and that it was unnecessary to add to their number. His reviser in 1965, Sir Ernest Gowers, felt the same way, calling it “a pretentious substitute”. Neither would have begun to agree with you that envisage was acceptable, except that Gowers rather grudgingly allowed that its sense of “forming a mental picture of something that may exist in the future” might on rare occasions prove useful. However, attitudes have shifted in the past forty years, and envisage is now considered to be entirely acceptable in any company.
Envision arrived much later, about 1920 (too recently for Henry Fowler to write about it in Modern English Usage in 1926). Some writers have suggested that it is the loftier word of the two, more likely to be employed in poetic or elevated writing (though many Americans would say that of envisage).
The usage evidence is that the two words have virtually identical senses. There’s a strong tendency for envision to be preferred in North America and envisage in the UK and in British Commonwealth countries, though that isn’t absolute.