Tag Archives: incentivize

conversate, incent

Hmm. I wonder what will incentivize me to conversate today.

What?

Oh.

(Clears throat.) Hmm. I wonder what will incent me to converse today.

Huh?

(Sigh)

Would you prefer I orate? Would that make you ovate? Would you be less disorientated? Or disoriented?

Look, I’m not sure why you’re fixated on something that’s not fixed. I will be happy to notate these usages if you will note them.

Conversate is, according to many people, “not a word.” Of course that’s not true; it’s a distinct lexical item, established in usage, with a clear meaning. But it’s generally dispreferred in many a person’s idea of the prestige standard version of English. It’s not new, though of course age doesn’t automatically make a word part of the prestige standard (ain’t is very old indeed); it’s attested since 1811, mainly in American colloquial usage. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that it is “In later use associated esp. with African-American usage.”

But the verb converse has been around far longer. And why have that extra –ate when you don’t need it, right? You’d think that logic would incent people to accept incent. Instead, many get incensed by it. “Give incentive to!” some insist. Others allow incentivize. But before the mid-1800s, there was no verb form for incentive, and between the 1840s and the 1960s the only available verb for it was incent. Finally someone added those extra syllables to make incentivize – so much more acceptable, right?

Well, yes, incent is a backformation from incentive. But if you want to edit it out, remember that edit is a backformation from editor. And if, like some excitable word-warriors, you would like to get a syringe and euthanize anyone who uses incent, you might pause to consider that syringe is backformed from the plural syringes – the original singular is syrinx – and euthanize is backformed from euthanasia. And orate is backformed from oration, and ovate is from ovation, and yet, although those two words have similar ages and traditions of use (both tracing back to the 1600s), I’ll bet orate sounds more acceptable to you than ovate does (though, to be fair, some people dislike orate too – not so much now as a century ago, however).

And then of course there are fix and fixate, and note and notate, which have different meanings. And the verbs orient and orientate, which mean exactly the same thing except one says you’re American or Canadian and the other says you’re from Britain or Australia or New Zealand or…

Meanwhile, incent is generally associated with business-speak, that buzzword-laden argot that seems far too impressed with itself and not nearly thoughtful enough. And yet it’s short and effective. Like orient.

Conversate, of course, is the converse: longer than it needs to be. Just like orientate. But it’s not really about length, is it. Not when incent is just as ardently dispreferred. When people inveigh against “abuses” and “barbarisms,” if you listen for a bit, you find that what exercises them is often that they attribute the words to people who don’t know how stupid they sound. Who think too highly of themselves. Who lack educational status and don’t know their place. Who are, in short, uppity.

Hmm. Almost makes you wonder if the word-peevers are compensing for something.

Say what?

Oh. Yeah. The tidy verb compense, directly formed from Latin compensare, was current from the 1300s to the 1700s but, starting in the 1600s, came to be displaced by compensateCompense can’t be used as a verb anymore. What a botheration.

We can’t magically instantly change which words are associated with which variety of English, of course, and we are not obliged – or even obligated – to use words that we dislike if words we like are available. Skillful writers should be aware of how their audiences will receive and react to the words they choose. But we should stop to consider how we react to words we dislike, and ask ourselves why.

Well, nice conversating with you. So to speak.

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incent, incentivize

“I’m incensed!”

Margot swatted a small sheaf of papers down on the table, nearly toppling our paper coffee cups. Of course, if anyone would edit on paper, it would be Margot, age 30-going-on-80.

I raised an eyebrow. “What has you burning up?”

Jess, at the same time, said about the same thing: “What’s the incendiary device?”

“Look!” Margot thrust the top page forward and jabbed her finger at a line. We craned forward, Jess, Daryl, and I, trying to read it. Margot, after hesitation, read it out loud to prevent knocking of heads. “‘We have season’s tickets to Maple Leafs games, but client demand for these seats is less than formerly. We have previously had raffles to give away game tickets to employees. We have decided to incentivize these seats. One pair will be given to a top performer every two weeks to incent our employee population.’”

I clucked my tongue. “Yeah, needs a little work. Amazing that they asked, though. This kind of stuff usually goes out as is.”

Jess sat back. “I’m not surprised that client demand for Leafs tickets is down.” She knew, as I did, that the very usage Leafs irritated Margot, but as a brand name it’s regularized – maple leaves are actual foliage.

“Yeah,” said Daryl, stepping in the biggest cow patty, “that’s not how one usually uses incentivize.”

Margot’s eyes swivelled onto him like two overloading lasers. “One does not. Use. Incentivize. At all. Ever.”

“Well, I don’t see why one would need to,” I said, trying to keep a straight face. “When there’s a perfectly good word already. Incent.” I tried to have a sip of my coffee without giggling.

Margot looked at me for a moment as though she was going to say “You stay out of this,” and then remembered it wasn’t a lovers’ spat between her and Daryl. Finally she said, “That is a perfectly awful word.”

“It’s a perfectly elegant word,” I said, the corner of my mouth curling up. “A tidy backformation from incentive. Been around since the mid-1800s. Whereas incentivize showed up in the 1960s.” Daryl, meanwhile, was tapping away on his iPad.

“What’s wrong with give an incentive?” Margot said.

“It’s three words where one will do?” I said.

“To be fair,” Jess said, sitting forward again, “those older uses of incent are with the older sense. They mean ‘incite’.”

“Sure,” I said, “because incentive meant ‘incitement’ – the current sense of ‘reward’ or ‘encouragement’ didn’t show up until the mid-1900s. Incent was a backformation from the older sense, and now it’s one from the newer sense.”

Daryl laughed at something on his iPad. “On Merriam-Webster, they have comment threads –”

Margot and Jess simultaneously exclaimed, with entirely different tones, “On a dictionary?!”

“Yeah! And the top comment on their entry for incent is, ‘I am shocked this is in a dictionary. I hear “incent” all the time at work and I just don’t think it’s a real word. Nor have I any use for “incentivize”. That’s even worse.’” Daryl laughed again as he looked up. “Usually prescriptivists refer to a dictionary to prove something’s ‘not a word.’ Now this guy finds incent in the dictionary and he won’t accept its authority.”

Jess intoned a chant: “‘It’s not a word, it’s not a word…’ The old familiar incantation.”

I looked at her for a moment. “You know, don’t you.”

“…That incentive and incantation have the same Latin root? Why yes, I do.” Jess smiled broadly. “Canere, to sing. Incentives set the tune. Well, now they not so much call the tune as pay the piper.”

“Same person,” Daryl said. “Calls the tune, pays the piper.”

“Formerly,” I said, “incentive was sometimes mistakenly thought to have the same root as incense, verb and noun, which is actually the same as incendiary – since an incentive gets people all fired up.”

“Well,” Jess said, “incent seems to make cense.” She sipped her coffee and glanced at me, evidently confident that I would hear the pun she meant – with the old cut-off version of incense.

“It makes nonsense,” Margot said. She looked as if someone had just put lemon juice in her coffee.

“You know what it means,” I said. “You just don’t like it because it’s business-speak.”

“What if we always backformed words like that?” Margot said. “If instead of sending someone a missive we said we missed them?”

“If I miss you, I’ll send you a missive,” Daryl said. “To say so.”

Margot froze for a moment and then continued. “And instead of giving a laxative we laxate?”

“I think we could laxate this document of yours,” Jess said, reaching for it.

“Ugghhhh,” Margot said, reacting to the document, Jess’s use of laxate, or both.

“Yeah, never mind whether those are real words,” I said, “it’s a bit of a piece of sh–”

“Ssshhh!” Margot said. She’s allergic to crude words. She gathered up the document. “I can handle this. I wasn’t looking for help. I simply wanted to air my frustration.”

Jess and I looked at each other. Why she would air it in our direction was an ongoing mystery. She couldn’t possibly be expecting simple sympathy.

Daryl set aside his iPad. “What incentive are you getting for editing this?”

“Tickets to the Maple –” Margot hesitated. “The…” Could she make herself say Leafs? She exhaled through her nose. “To a hockey game.”

Jess rolled her head over to face Margot. “The Leafs? I wouldn’t be incented. I’d be incensed.”