Does this word disorientate you? Or should I say disorient you?

We have many ways to innovate in English, to form new words, and one of them is to press existing words into new uses. We can do this by adding a suffix, and we can also do it by adding no suffix. So, for example, we have the word orient, meaning ‘the east’, and we make it a verb meaning ‘point to the east’ or ‘find the east’ or just ‘know which way is east and which way is west’. If we’re in England, we are likely to add a suffix and make the verb orientate. But if we’re in North America, we’ll go with the older version of the verb (older by a century, mid-1700s instead of mid-1800s), the version that, like so many English words, was formed by what linguists like to call “zero derivation” – that is, a new form is derived from the old one with zero change of form. We say orient.

You see, two important but typically competing forces in the evolution of language are economy and clarity. One the one hand, we don’t want to expend unnecessary effort; on the other hand, we need to be clear (or our listeners will expend unnecessary effort, or perhaps by not understanding us will cause us to expend unnecessary effort). So we are incentivized to innovate and incented to innove.

Does that bother you? You’ve heard incent before, I’m sure. It’s been in English since at least 1844, backformed from incentive. A century or so later, a suffixed form, incentivize, appeared, and since then many peevers have had the gall to say that incent is the grotesque innovation even though it’s the older form, is derived by well-established means – backformation is nothing new, after all – and has a more economical (and therefore elegant) form.

Likewise innove. If you are enervated by innovate, then perhaps you would rather be freed than liberated, would rather have things cleared than clarified. You would do as the French, who, from Latin innovare ‘make new’ (from in + novus + verbal suffix), made the verb innover with conjugations j’innoveelle innove, et cetera. You do not need the overstuffed innovate; you innove. Skip the SUV-word and hop into a sportscar-word and really move. This is one of the ways we innove in English.

The choice between innovating and innoving, for any derived word, comes down partly to history and partly to peevery. Although I should say that if you choose to use the more efficient form in this case, you can’t actually plead history – no English reference will back you up. It’s a new old word: I just innoved it.

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