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

18 thoughts on “Incent or Incentivize?”

  1. 8/9/10: A fellow wordsmith (Doug Roncarati)asked me to read this article, since I have an interest in etymology. I have no use for either incent, or incentivize, prefering “encourage, motivate, drive, urge, lead and spur.” Thank you.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Frank! Sorry it took so long to approve your comment. We’re glad to have another defender (or two) of clarity in our ranks.

    2. Frank, sorry here I am 7 years later with a torching reply… not really. I despise incentivize, but understand things change. In common non-disparaging dialogue, I am also super stoked about using the word BLACK as a racial reference to a party to a discussion… as opposed to African American, which is not only brutally clumsy alliteration, but also presumptuous. Black is more generally descriptive than African American… as is White versus Caucasian American (?)… those racial ascriptions don’t fit well into country borders. Anyway, back to the flaming… you may prefer the words you have listed to incent or its evil twin, but none are synonyms of the i words. So you are either losing meaning or may have to shore up your language with more supporting descriptions in order to convey all things possible in the single charming word ‘incent’.

  2. Thanks for the explanation. I came along when ‘incent’ was used in business, so when ‘incentivize’ became prevalent, it just seemed….wrong – a made-up word. Not as compact. I still don’t like it.

    1. I am with you Mike Bynum, Incentivize is like nails on a chalk board to me. It seems like someone is trying to use a “Big” word when a little word says the same thing.

  3. I agree with previous comments that “incentivize” appears cumbersome and fabricated. It’s the latest business word which may aim to make a distinctive or catchy impact but lacks the simplicity of words better suited. I’m finding more coworkers who use it while doubting it’s being received with the intended clarity. Chalk up “incentive” as the newest entry into my favorite office game: “Buzzword Bingo”

  4. Compare the words in ngram and you will see that incent is not a verb that came into being after incentivize as claimed. Google has references back to 1800

  5. Jay

    This conundrum has been haunting me for a year or so. I recall ,for years now the perfectly accurate use of ‘invent” for several years . recently the use of :incentavize’ has been heard in the news outlets ;news talk shows and in the print media now almost to the total exclusion of :invent . Which is more correct. Incenevize seems much more a neologism due to the perceived notion the the word invent does not carry the same gravitas. It appears the media persons feel that invent doesn’t have enough clout .Are there others that agree that incentive is not a proper word.

  6. Incentivize holds the exact meaning you describe in the article. Therefore it’s perfect for describing something in a negative way. For example, an evil dictator incentives his people with fear or money to report people who hold dissenting opinions.

  7. I joseph Akech i would like to inform the public that incentive are most motivative to girls education, let us try offers incentive. Thanks.

  8. The first example of “incent” cited in the OED is from 1844, so , no it didn’t come after incentivize. I don’t like the sound of incentivize when incent is much simpler. Incentivize sounds like a word a congressman would use, another reason not to use it.

  9. “Incent” is not the younger of the two deplorables. It was first cited in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1844. That is not to defend verbifying “incentive” into inane bandwagon business jargon. Most people who heard the term in a marketing meeting seem to think using it makes them one of the cool kids. I would prefer if they found better ways to “motivate”,” stimulate”, and “inspire.”

  10. Sorry, incent was a spelling word when I was in 5th grade and my husband is 3 years older than I am. So the verb incent was in our dictionary and spelling books in the mid 1960’s.

  11. I cannot tell you why – I just hate the non-word “incentivise.” As someone said above – like nails on a chalk board.

    Perhaps worse is the pronunciation of divisive. Talking heads will often have a short “i” after the “v”. Divide – divisive.

    1. Paul, based on your spelling, I assume you’re writing from the UK (or at least not the US). I have heard “divisive” pronounced the way you describe, but only from British speakers. I wonder how that came about.

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