Monthly Archives: June 2009

Fortuitous

FORTUITOUS: “happening by accident or chance rather than by design” — New Oxford American Dictionary

How fortuitous for the network that Michael Jackson’s death gave them an excuse to replay a two-hour episode from this season! (And by “fortuitous,” I mean “tacky.”) (DWTS’ Meets ‘Biggest Loser’, The Wrap, June 30, 2009)

That might have been fortuitous, in a reverse-fortuitous way, because Coppola already had a rep for blowing his budgets… (Disneyland Urged to Bring Back Michael Jackson’s Captain EO, OCWeekly.com, June 26, 2009)

Fortuitous does not mean, nor has it ever meant, “fortunate.” If you mean “fortunate,” the word you want is fortunate. That’s getting to be a mantra here.

And look, please don’t argue that yes, something is fortuitous because it is both fortunate and a product of chance. Fine, fine, if that is the case, fortuitous works, even if you don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re saved by a fortuitous coincidence of ignorance and correctness. But a rise in stock prices is not fortuitous. Better-than-expected earnings are not fortuitous. Even a straight flush in Vegas is not fortuitous. All of these things, one could argue, feature an element of chance. But fortuitous carries with it the connotation of surprise, of something not anticipated or even hoped for. And it can be for good or ill, as in the fortuitous confluence of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.

We at Lexicide had categorized this word as near-extinct, but after reading the entires above, we may have to just give in and order the flowers. “Reverse-fortuitous way?” I knew the death of Jacko would bring out only the lowest and tackiest (and by “tackiest,” I mean “most fortuitous“) writing efforts. But this? Oh, the humanity!

Otto E. Mezzo

Incent or Incentivize?

INCENT: “To provide with an incentive” — Merriam Webster Online

INCENTIVIZE: “To provide with an incentive” — Merriam Webster Online

Well, duh.

This is going to make you mad, but I will not be taking potshots at these awkward back-formations today. Sure, they roll off the tongue like cement doorstops, but as is often the case with corporate-speak, these words are here to stay. Like their sisters in sin impact and enthuse, verbified nouns are the sweethearts of managers, marketers and motivators — you know, folks with good people skills and atrocious writing skills. (note from ed.: Otto currently holds the title of Marketing Manager at his company, where he writes motivational literature. Thanks, Otto. Carry on.)

Making verbs out of nouns is an act that has a storied history in English. The word escalate was preceded by escalator (itself derived from the French escalier, meaning staircase). While escalate originally meant “making use of an escalator,” where would we be today without wars, threats and other nasty things that escalate? Go back even further to the 1700s and you find the word donation, but not the verb donate. Again, charities would be the poorer if they could only ask people to give, offer, contribute or bestow.

Which brings us back to the two words in the dock today. Incentivize seems to have come first (appearing sometime in the 1970s), followed by incent in the 1980s. Both words are clunky and sound like you’re adding a splash of Mongolian to a conference call in English. But there is a slight difference in nuance between incentivize/incent and encourage and motivate. One encourages and motivates with goodwill and enthusiasm; one incentivizes or incents with a prize or giveaway, especially when the target audience would be unmoved without the incentive. In other words, the first set of words sound positive and optimistic, while the newcomers sound cynical.

And yet, businesspeople insist on incenting. Maybe it’s a sign of our materialistic age that goodwill and leadership just don’t cut it anymore with the troops. Whatever the reason, we at Lexicide grudgingly welcome these neophyte words and encourage corporate wordsmiths to consider three things:

1) Encourage, motivate, drive, urge, lead and spur are still more universal, positive and readable.

2) The first time I heard incent, I mistook it for incense and wondered why we wanted to enrage our customers. This could happen to you.

3) To incent or incentivize, you must offer an incentive. If you don’t have one, use another damn word. If your “incentive” is the spectre of firing or other penalty, you should try the word threaten or browbeat.

— Otto E. Mezzo

References: The Boston Globe’s “Dissent on Incent”
Grammar Girl’s take on “verbification”
The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson