Incite, Incentive, Incent, Incentivize

By Maeve Maddox

The first two words in the title, incite and incentive, have been in the language a long time:

incite (1483) verb: to urge or spur on

incentive (1475) noun: something that arouses feeling or incites to action.

The verbs incent and incentivize are later arrivals that currently offend the sensibilities of many speakers:

Some neologisms deserve to be throttled, wrapped up in black plastic, and dropped into the deepest crevices of the Marianas Trench as soon as they are created. Two such words are incent and incentivize. –Writing, Clear and Simple (2007)

Does it bug you when you hear a word that’s not really a word–Take this example: incent. I hear this all the time, especially in business. As in, “What can we do to incent our staff to work harder?” –Edit This Blog (2011)

You receive incentives to incentivize you. What do you get when you’re incented? Incents? Incention?–Commenter reacting to another reader’s defense of incent.

The verb incent, a backformation of the noun incentive, has an OED entry that documents the forms incented and incenting, but none for plain incent. The earliest citation is from 1844: “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.” The most recent (1997) identifies incent as not quite standard by enclosing it in quotations: “Workers need to be ‘incented’ with bonuses, stock options, and dispersed decision-making.”

The verb incentivize first appears on the Ngram Viewer in the late 1950s, but doesn’t make much of a showing until the 1980s, when it begins to soar. Since then it has become a staple of business vocabulary.

How can health plans incentivize members to take care of their health?

Use objective measures to incentivize midlevel providers for increased productivity.

FDA outlines plan to incentivize high-quality manufacturing.

All of the words in this group derive from Latin incendĕre, “to kindle, set on fire.” An incentive is something that provokes a person to action.

“Incentive pay” is documented from 1943. The noun incentive in the sense of payment to encourage a worker dates from 1948.

Some readers object to both incent and incentivize, preferring the phrase “offer incentives to,” or the verb motivate.

Others reject incent, but accept incentivize, arguing that motivate does not have quite the same meaning:

There really is a difference between incentives and motivation. What an incentive is “I am going to pay you to want what I want.” And as long as you pay people to want what you want they do it. The minute you stop paying them to want what you want, they stop. And they are not motivated to do anything. They were just incentivized to do just that. –Clayton Christensen, BBC InBiz podcast, September 6, 2012.

Regardless of one’s aversion to the sound of incentivize, railing against it is futile. When a new word is perceived as filling a gap, it will prevail. Incentivize is here to stay, right along with amortize, alphabetize, anesthetize, burglarize, commercialize and all the other -ize verbs we may or may not find pleasing to the ear.

Incent, on the other hand, is supremely expendable. For one thing, it is used with the same meaning as incentivize. For another, the sound is so close to incite and incense as to invite misunderstanding.

Incite can be used with a neutral meaning, for example, “to incite interest,” but is usually used in the context of stirring up trouble, as in “to incite violence.” The verb incense (accent on the second syllable) means, “to provoke to anger,” as in “Failure to abide by these requirements could incense an already emotional worker and trigger unnecessary and irksome litigation.” An inattentive listener might misunderstand the motives of an employer who wants “to incent his workers.”

At present, incite isn’t so much as a speck on the Ngram Viewer so it may not be too difficult to ignore it into oblivion.

As for incentivize, speakers who can’t bear to utter the word have options:

offer incentives

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2 Responses to “Incite, Incentive, Incent, Incentivize”

  • venqax

    Sorry, no sale. “Incentivize” and “to incent” just signal me that the user does not have a very good command of English. And he perhaps lives in a business-world bubble where such words are manufactured. I will say, though, that it is better than “efforting”.

  • Joe

    One purpose a neologism sometimes serves is to dissemble something that would be revealed with the use of a more familiar term, particularly the relationship that the giver of an incentive prefers to have with the recipient.

    In the words on your list of alternates, we see some suggestions of status and other conduct than the mere extension of something of value for something else of value between equals. For instance, ‘bribe’ suggests something unethical, if not criminal, in the incentive, with the recipient knowing that whatever is given in exchange for the ‘incentive’ is not something that the recipient would or may ordinarily give to the ‘incentivizer’ (which is unrelated to a ‘sanitizer,’ but insinuates ‘sanitizing’ into what is otherwise ethically ‘unsanitary’).

    ‘Drive’ suggests that the one offering the incentive may enjoy a superior position, like a Pavlovian master or an overseer. The one making the offer may not want to reveal the ethical implications of an offer or may want to hide a master/servant relationship.

    One singular advantage of ‘incentivize’ is that it hides the status of the giver behind a ‘business’ mask without revealing if the giver is more like Gordon Gekko or George F. Babbitt or George Bailey (with apologies to those readers who have to search the internet for meanings of these names).

    The neologism ‘incentivize’ provides some sizzle to what may well be nothing newer and more ordinary than a coin used in the oldest profession, without revealing how cheap the offer really is.

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