Incent, Incentivize: Authority Always Wins

In the course of a recent dinner conversation I cocked my ear (and my eyebrow) at the sound of a verb I had not heard before: “to incent.”  “Incentivize” I know well of course, having heard it many times in the wild and also in corporate-language peeving contexts [because, you know, verbing weirds language. See a good discussion of this particular peeve at LL, “Centuries of Disgust and Horror“, plus a related riff on the name of the corporatese translating service called “Unsuck it.“].   Hearing it for the first time, “incent, v.” struck my ear falsely, and I concluded it must be a  hypercorrection of odious “incentivize”, probably a result of years of onslaught by said peevers. I was assured it was preferred usage in legal writing, and that my interlocutor had indeed had her initial use of “incentivize” truncated by a more experienced colleague.

Who will settle this score? Fist, to MWDEU, which has grim news for both words:

incentivize, incent  These two recent coinages (incentivize dates from 1970 in our files, incent from the 1990s) have little or no use outside of business contexts. More than half of our evidence comes from quoted speech, which suggests that neither is much used in writing. Predictably they have been condemned by commentators including Harper 1985 (against incentivize) and Garner 1998 (against both). […] Our evidence so far does not show these verbs working their way into mainstream English.

So things look bad, but they look somewhat worse for “incent,” since it’s kind of ludicrous to claim a usage is correct when it is coined decades after the one you’re rejecting, and according to very similar principles of back-formation. Score a win for me and “incentivize”.

But my MWDEU appears to be a bit behind the times. My OED2 has quotations for “incent” dating back to 1977, and says “Compare earlier incentivize v.” which appears in 1968. Nine years is plausibly short enough for both neologisms to have been invented independently. That one caught on enough for me to have encountered it in the world and the other didn’t is perfectly natural [See n-grams for relative frequency of usage since 1950]. Perhaps we’re nil-nil after all.

But Wait!! Not so fast! What does OED3 have to say? Look up “incent” there and find “Compare later incentivize v.” Later? The draft entry from September 2003 has the original 1977 quotation, plus quotes from 1844, 1898, 1906, and 1963, showing pretty continuous use over almost 170 years. Quotes for revised “incentivize”, also from Sept. 2003, are unchanged, going back only to 1963. “Incent” it is.

From all this I conclude that, until September 2003 (or as long as I cling to my paper or CD ROM OED2), I am correct in considering “incent” odious, not only as a back formation, but worse, also as a hypercorrection. And after September 2003, everybody priggishly using “incent” is not only priggish but, worse, also correct.

I’d also like to propose “centive, n.”, “cent, v.”, and “centivize, v.” to refer to things that discourage action, and the doing of those things. This could work.

In case you’re curious, here are the OED3 evidence quotations for “incent, v.” I wonder if the 1844 one might be a typo, for “incensed”:

1844   Rover 2 24/2   Incented by the stupid ambition of an ignorant mother, she thought that the purse of the one was far superior to the heart of the other.
1898   Hansard’s Parl. Deb. 4th Ser. 53 1096   The noble Lord went so to charge..Mr. Tilak with incenting to murder.
1906   Bible Soc. Rec. Feb. 26/1   Uplifting the women, arousing their ambition, and incenting them to learn to read.
1963   M. Burstein Money 782   Americans will be incented to acquire lira balances.
1977   Associated Press Newswire (Nexis) 30 Nov.,   Many are gone, including the man who incented me, Ed Murrow.
1997   Post & Courier (Charleston, S. Carolina) 13 Mar. a16   Workers need to be ‘incented’ with bonuses, stock options, and dispersed decision-making.

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