Some words make their way into the English language that absolutely should not. One of these is the unfortunate product of a crime, namely verbicide. The perpetrators took the noun â€œincentive” and twisted it into an awkward verb – “incentivize.” I have heard this abomination one time too many in recent days, so I decided to delve into my dictionaries. Naturally, as The Word Cop, I have lots of them.
I started with the largest, thickest dictionary on my shelf – Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary. That’s “unabridged”, i.e. left alone, not shortened, nothing left out. Sounded like the right source to me.
What did I find? I found the venerable, and correct, noun “incentive”. No reference to “incentivize”, or even “incent”, which is a shortened version that at least sounds better, if just as incorrect.
I moved on to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. This was the dictionary my mother gave me in the 1960′s. It made a big splash at the time because it included all the naughty words, the swear words, and the four-letter words. Mother, being an English teacher, got a kick out of handing out dictionaries to both of her kids and all of her nieces and nephews on Christmas Day. (To the dismay of her siblings and siblings-in-law, she also informed each child that they could look up swear words in that dictionary. To her delight – no dismay here – , they all dove right in.)
Any dictionary that includes four-letter words ought to include newer English creations, Americanisms and/or slang, right? Wrong. No “incentivize” and no “incent”. (It does include many other interesting words, however. I can still remember the day, shortly after the Christmas of the Dictionaries, when Mother called to me from the kitchen, “Margaret, look up chicken shit.” You can imagine the rest and, yes, it is there.)
I turned next to the World Wide Web. How did we ever exist without this resource? Here, I was more successful. They list newly created words, bastardized expressions, and illegitimate results of crimes such as verbicide. Dictionary.com defined it as a verb meaning “to give incentives to”. They added that it originated in 1965-70 and was an “Americanism”. (Is that good or bad? Maybe it depends on which side of the pond you are on.) They also quoted the World English Dictionary (their source being Collins English Dictionary), which defined it much the same, but spelled it “incentivise”.
Then I found www.onelook.com. Jackpot! They obligingly search multiple dictionaries and present the searcher with a handy list of links. I worked my way down the list. Most indicated that the word originated in the business world, that source of so many examples of bad English, and that it was created in the 1960′s or 1970′s, then shortened in the 80′s or 90′s to “incent”.
Beginning to get bored with the repetitious list, I worked my way down to the Urban Dictionary, www.urbandictionary.com. This one made my day, to quote Dirty Harry. They listed a couple of helpful definitions, along with examples of usage. Let me share at least one. You can surf over for more. First, their definition:
“A corporate-jargon non-word meaning “motivate,” coined in 1968. Some 10 years later, it was shortened to the equally annoying verb “incent.” Unfortunately, both are recognized by both Merriam-Webster and the OED. The only respectable form of the word is the noun “incentive”.
And now, the example:
“I would like to motivate him to never say “incentivize” again by telling him I will rip his windpipe out of his throat the next time I hear him say it.”
I roared with laughter! My husband entered my office for explanations and to share the laugh. My thanks to the Urban Dictionary! I will be surfing over there again, let me assure you. Of course, The Word Cop would never threaten such violence!
“Go ahead. Make my day.”