Incent or Incentivize?

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.

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

Moot Point/Mute Point

MOOT POINT: “a debatable question, an issue open to argument; also, an irrelevant question, a matter of no importance” — The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms

MOOT: “subject to debate, dispute or uncertainty, and typically not admitting of a final decision” — New Oxford American Dictionary

We don’t typically address mishearings, misreadings or misspeakings here, but this one presents an interesting opportunity. Before 2008, I had never heard “moot point” rendered as “mute point.” Now, it seems the mangled usage is ubiquitous enough to signal an impending shift. Click on the links below and hear “Joe the Plumber” say it and The Nation and The Guardian print it. Granted, the publications employ mute point as a pun, but now that thousands of people have seen it, it’s-a gonna stick.

Two developments make this lexicide particularly fascinating. First, it’s a lexicide of a lexicide. Moot’s original meaning was “open to debate;” the word is related to meet. Moots were assemblies convened to discuss or debate a topic, and this sense lives on in moot court, where law students face off in a courtroom to argue a hypothetical case. Because of moot courts, which have no legal consequence, the meaning of moot shifted from “open to debate” to “irrelevant.” Moot still retains its original meaning — in fact, all the dictionaries I consulted list “open to debate” as its primary definition. But in the States, at least, when you read moot, you think “of no consequence.”

But now that moot point is becoming mute point, it appears the whole concept of a worthless discussion is about to disappear. Several sources (web pages, fellow consultants) indicate that business folk believe mute points are those you make while using the mute button (See the Urban Dictionary entry below). Unpoetic (I preferred The Nation’s usage), but sadly funny, too.

So first people misunderstood moot, then misheard it as mute, and now transform the meaning to match the definition. I’m not even sure modern office denizens, who seem to have limited language skills, understand that the word mute has meanings apart from the little button on the phone. But I’ve learned better than to waste my breath defending an irrelevant point, even one open to debate.

Otto E. Mezzo

References: Joe the Plumber makes a mute point with Bill Maher
http://www.thenation.com/doc/20051017/dantohttp://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2007/mar/14/comment.sport
http://languagerules.wordpress.com/2006/09/25/moot-point-not-mute-point/
The Urban Dictionary 

Postmortem (spotted on FoxNews.com)

Who Were Madoff’s REAL Partners In Crime?

March 13th, 2009 9:06 PM Eastern
Now that Madoff is starting what will eventually become a long stay in the clink, let the post-mortems begin. Would you like to know who were his real accomplices in this affair? It’s a gang that goes by the nickname, the “Securities and Exchange Commission” and it brazenly operates right out in the open in Washington, D.C. And the nature of their fraud? Why, they con the investing public into believing that they’re “protected” against guys like Bernie Madoff! (read the rest here)

See Postmortem.

Continuum (spotted on IMDb news)

All right, IMDb.com. A movie cannot be a continuum of another movie. The word you’re looking for is continuation. Wow. That wasn’t hard.

Craig: No Bond Movie In His Immediate Plans

9 December 2008 1:31 AM, PST

Daniel Craig has indicated that the next 007 film is not in the works and that “nobody’s thinking about it at the moment.” Although the usual timetable calls for a Bond movie to be released every other year — there have been several exceptions — Craig told the London Sun, “We’re giving it a rest for the moment. If I can squeeze something in next year I will … but I haven’t figured out what that’ll be yet.” He insisted, however, that the next film will not be a continuum of Quantum of Solace. “I’m done with that story,” he said. Nevertheless, he seemed to suggest that the next Bond movie will likely be another prequel. “Let’s try and find [out] where Moneypenny came from and where Q comes from. Let’s do all that and have some fun with it,” he said.

All right, IMDb.com. A movie cannot be a continuum of another movie. The word you’re looking for is continuation. Wow. That wasn’t hard. 

If anything, it would be in a continuum with another movie. And that better be the space-time continuum or some other continuous sequence with distinct extremes separated by gradual, impercetible intervals. Be respectful to mathematicians, physicists and psychologists, who have a lot more education than you and for whom the word continuum means quite a lot more than just a set of sequels. In the movie world, there’s already an apt and well-established word for that: franchise.

— Otto E. Mezzo

Leverage

LEVERAGE (as a verb): “To use borrowed capital for an investment, expecting the profits made to be greater than the interest payable.” — New Oxford American Dictionary

As everyone who lived through the 1980s (decade of the LBOs, or leveraged buy-outs) knows, to leverage is to incur risk. What it does not mean is simply “to use” or “to exploit,” a definition creeping into vogue among obfuscating business writers today.

This new, timid meaning no doubt owes its birth to a secondary meaning of leverage, which is “to exert power or influence on” (Random House Dictionary). For example, a majority political party can leverage cooperation from the minority. What’s always implied, though, is something to leverage with. If you can’t fill in the leveraging capital (in the example above, it would be: “a majority political party can use its majority status to leverage cooperation from the minority.”), you’re probably using it wrong.

And because leverage is a transitive verb, it’s always necessary to remember what you’re leveraging. You can use power, influence, capital or surreptitiously obtained videos of unspeakable acts involving emus to leverage a result. You cannot leverage a technology or a new business practice. (Utilize, exploit or for Pete’s sake, use the damn thing!) Besides, if you claim to leverage a new technology, what are leveraging it with? Sorry, but your ignorance is not a sufficient fulcrum.

Already, The American Heritage Dictionary, always at the vanguard of rushing to include new (usually wrong) definitions, has added “to improve or enhance” as a secondary meaning for leverage. But even the quotation they cite seems detached from this definition: “It makes more sense to be able to leverage what we [public radio stations] do in a more effective way to our listeners” (Delano Lewis, San Francisco Chronicle, December 20, 1997).

Huh? I don’t have the context, but one doesn’t improve in a more effective way. I guess even public radio, manna of the literati, sometimes leverages its own highbrow pretentiousness against itself. Where’s Daniel Schorr when you need him?

— Otto E. Mezzo

Update | January 13, 2008

yes, let’s agree not to use the verb “leverage” when discussing business, marketing, and software. Leverage the word “use.”

Thank you, Gina! (http://twitter.com/ginatrapani/statuses/941183035)

Update | March 4, 2010

I have received mail asking why the “update” is stamped January 13, 2008 — more than a year earlier than the original entry. Sorry — that was the date of the tweet. I stumbled across it by accident, and it shows leverage has been enduring abuse longer than I expected. And speaking of which:

Sighting: yet another webinar

Leverage the strength of collective buying

We leverage best practices…

Leverage strategic partnerships with major vendors

I stopped counting after the third slide. The presenter really leveraged my attention away to a YouTube video of a lip-synching hamster. The twee rodent used not one word wrong and he used verbs.

Update | September 11, 2019

A ten-year anniversary retrospective!

— Otto