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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

incentivize

(1990’s | businese (finance) | “provide incentive,” “encourage,” “promote”)

Editors and writers made a sport of deploring this word in the eighties and nineties, when it was reviled as unnecessary and clumsy, an obvious instance of a noun turned awkwardly into a verb by adding the “-ize” suffix, like “prioritize.” As late as 1997, E.J. Dionne expressed hope that “incentivize” could be expunged from the language. But it was not to be; this word has taken root and become quite common, though we already had several equivalents and it sounds clunky and jargony. The contexts in which it arose — business and politics — remain the ones in which it is most regularly used. How do you incentivize car sales or job creation? Customers or executives? Agriculture or high tech? The expression straddles the divide between creating incentive TO do something and incentive FOR someone to do something, and can apply with equal facility to either. It always boils down to creating compelling reasons for people to act a certain way, but it is not always necessary to explain what you’re doing. Gov. (now hapless presidential candidate) George Pataki once talked about “incentivizing work” among welfare recipients; Congressman Bob Inglis asked how to incentivize good health. It’s the same idea, but they skipped the part about rewarding people for finding paying jobs or adopting salubrious habits.

“Incentivize” first appeared in LexisNexis credited to chair of the Federal Reserve G. William Miller, who used the word repeatedly in testimony before Congress early in 1979. He certainly did not invent it; Google Books offers several examples as far back as 1969. In 1985, J. Peter Grace used it and was given tentative credit for the coinage by UPI. It’s all wishful thinking. Neither Miller nor Grace invented the term, but the fact that experienced reporters were inclined to give them the honors gives proof of its slow rise. “Incentivize” appeared now and then in the eighties (Jack Kemp used it in 1989) but did not really get rolling until the nineties.

A minor but nagging variant is the verb “incent,” which still makes most people with an ear for English wince, but does turn up occasionally. George W. Bush used it in the mid-1990’s as governor of Texas, though according to Texas Monthly, his aides made him stop. It was pretty new then and may not really have qualified as a word, depending on your standards, and it may not make the cut even now, for all that it appears in several dictionaries. It still sounds more illiterate than cutting-edge, and it seems to incense usage mavens more than “incentivize,” which is longer and windier but has the oddly comforting, or just anesthetizing, tone of bureaucratic language.

For while “incentivize” originated among our business mavens, it is a classic example of bureaucratese. No surprise that bureaucrats and financiers share a lingua franca, but one may wonder about the special needs of bureaucrats that bring forth words so obnoxious to the rest of us. To form a verb from a noun by adding a suffix — a practice nearly universally scorned among authorities in usage — may be seen as an attempt at precision, avoiding the use of a synonym, or near-synonym, that may be misconstrued or misunderstood, preferring to work with the exact word at hand. Cynics will reply that precision and clarity are the furthest things from the minds of bureaucrats, and their real intent is to bewilder us by creating strings of not-quite-comprehensible English sculpted to mean the opposite of what they appear, or carefully avoid saying anything at all. Both sides are right at least part of the time, but the debate has less to do with language than with politics. Ha! Just try keeping them apart.

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