incent, incentivize

“I’m incensed!”

Margot swatted a small sheaf of papers down on the table, nearly toppling our paper coffee cups. Of course, if anyone would edit on paper, it would be Margot, age 30-going-on-80.

I raised an eyebrow. “What has you burning up?”

Jess, at the same time, said about the same thing: “What’s the incendiary device?”

“Look!” Margot thrust the top page forward and jabbed her finger at a line. We craned forward, Jess, Daryl, and I, trying to read it. Margot, after hesitation, read it out loud to prevent knocking of heads. “‘We have season’s tickets to Maple Leafs games, but client demand for these seats is less than formerly. We have previously had raffles to give away game tickets to employees. We have decided to incentivize these seats. One pair will be given to a top performer every two weeks to incent our employee population.’”

I clucked my tongue. “Yeah, needs a little work. Amazing that they asked, though. This kind of stuff usually goes out as is.”

Jess sat back. “I’m not surprised that client demand for Leafs tickets is down.” She knew, as I did, that the very usage Leafs irritated Margot, but as a brand name it’s regularized – maple leaves are actual foliage.

“Yeah,” said Daryl, stepping in the biggest cow patty, “that’s not how one usually uses incentivize.”

Margot’s eyes swivelled onto him like two overloading lasers. “One does not. Use. Incentivize. At all. Ever.”

“Well, I don’t see why one would need to,” I said, trying to keep a straight face. “When there’s a perfectly good word already. Incent.” I tried to have a sip of my coffee without giggling.

Margot looked at me for a moment as though she was going to say “You stay out of this,” and then remembered it wasn’t a lovers’ spat between her and Daryl. Finally she said, “That is a perfectly awful word.”

“It’s a perfectly elegant word,” I said, the corner of my mouth curling up. “A tidy backformation from incentive. Been around since the mid-1800s. Whereas incentivize showed up in the 1960s.” Daryl, meanwhile, was tapping away on his iPad.

“What’s wrong with give an incentive?” Margot said.

“It’s three words where one will do?” I said.

“To be fair,” Jess said, sitting forward again, “those older uses of incent are with the older sense. They mean ‘incite’.”

“Sure,” I said, “because incentive meant ‘incitement’ – the current sense of ‘reward’ or ‘encouragement’ didn’t show up until the mid-1900s. Incent was a backformation from the older sense, and now it’s one from the newer sense.”

Daryl laughed at something on his iPad. “On Merriam-Webster, they have comment threads –”

Margot and Jess simultaneously exclaimed, with entirely different tones, “On a dictionary?!”

“Yeah! And the top comment on their entry for incent is, ‘I am shocked this is in a dictionary. I hear “incent” all the time at work and I just don’t think it’s a real word. Nor have I any use for “incentivize”. That’s even worse.’” Daryl laughed again as he looked up. “Usually prescriptivists refer to a dictionary to prove something’s ‘not a word.’ Now this guy finds incent in the dictionary and he won’t accept its authority.”

Jess intoned a chant: “‘It’s not a word, it’s not a word…’ The old familiar incantation.”

I looked at her for a moment. “You know, don’t you.”

“…That incentive and incantation have the same Latin root? Why yes, I do.” Jess smiled broadly. “Canere, to sing. Incentives set the tune. Well, now they not so much call the tune as pay the piper.”

“Same person,” Daryl said. “Calls the tune, pays the piper.”

“Formerly,” I said, “incentive was sometimes mistakenly thought to have the same root as incense, verb and noun, which is actually the same as incendiary – since an incentive gets people all fired up.”

“Well,” Jess said, “incent seems to make cense.” She sipped her coffee and glanced at me, evidently confident that I would hear the pun she meant – with the old cut-off version of incense.

“It makes nonsense,” Margot said. She looked as if someone had just put lemon juice in her coffee.

“You know what it means,” I said. “You just don’t like it because it’s business-speak.”

“What if we always backformed words like that?” Margot said. “If instead of sending someone a missive we said we missed them?”

“If I miss you, I’ll send you a missive,” Daryl said. “To say so.”

Margot froze for a moment and then continued. “And instead of giving a laxative we laxate?”

“I think we could laxate this document of yours,” Jess said, reaching for it.

“Ugghhhh,” Margot said, reacting to the document, Jess’s use of laxate, or both.

“Yeah, never mind whether those are real words,” I said, “it’s a bit of a piece of sh–”

“Ssshhh!” Margot said. She’s allergic to crude words. She gathered up the document. “I can handle this. I wasn’t looking for help. I simply wanted to air my frustration.”

Jess and I looked at each other. Why she would air it in our direction was an ongoing mystery. She couldn’t possibly be expecting simple sympathy.

Daryl set aside his iPad. “What incentive are you getting for editing this?”

“Tickets to the Maple –” Margot hesitated. “The…” Could she make herself say Leafs? She exhaled through her nose. “To a hockey game.”

Jess rolled her head over to face Margot. “The Leafs? I wouldn’t be incented. I’d be incensed.”

One response to “incent, incentivize

  1. I had no idea incentive was related to incantation. And I have to admit that I don’t get the hatred for incentivize.* People are always arguing for distinctions of dubious utility or complaining that there isn’t a handy word for a particular phenomenon. The hatred shows that it’s really more about the prestige of the speaker than it is about some objective measure of utility.

    I do still dislike incent, though, because it seems like a needless backformation. Also, the only time I’ve heard it in person was from a boss that I couldn’t stand. Again, it’s more about the speaker than the word.

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