The Grammarphobia Blog

To incent and incense

Q: I recently saw an interview with Carly Fiorina, who kept using the words “incent” and “incenting.” My dictionary has never heard of these forms of incentive. Is my dictionary out of date? Or is Ms. Fiorina inventing words?

A: Your dictionary is out of date, unfortunately. “Incent” is a verb formed a generation or so ago, and it appears in both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed).

“Incent” is what’s known as a back-formation, in this case formed from “incentive.” And it’s worth noting that the word didn’t appear in the preceding editions of either dictionary (though the even uglier “incentivize” did).

As you might suspect, it means to provide an incentive. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first citation for the word appears in 1977 via the Associated Press: “Many are gone, including the man who incented me, Ed Murrow.” I suspect Ed would have been incensed by this usage.

The second citation seems closer to the way the word is used today. It’s from 1981, and appeared in Chemical Week: “If you set realistic performance targets with enough stretch in them, then you’re trying to ‘incent’ the participants on things that are within their control.”

Back-formations are pretty common in English. And some of them actually catch on. Examples of verbs that began as back-formations from nouns are “diagnose” (from “diagnosis”), “escalate” (from “escalator”), and “baby-sit” (from “babysitter”).

Among back-formations that are often frowned upon by usage experts are “incent,” “administrate” (from “administration”), “enthuse” (from “enthusiasm”), and “orientate” (a mid-19th century back-formation from “orientation,” which itself is derived from a verb, “orient”).

Not every word you find in the dictionary is pleasing to every ear. I find the ugly “administrate” unnecessary since the older “administer” is a perfectly good word. Though “administrate” doesn’t have any more syllables than “administer,” it’s longer and newer, which may be its attraction for people who enjoy using bureaucratic language.

An example of an outrageous back-formation that’s not (yet) in the dictionary is “adolesce” (from “adolescence”), as in “He hasn’t finished adolescing yet.” It was no doubt intended humorously.

In my opinion, there’s nothing humorous about “incent.” Shame on the former CEO and chairman of Hewlett-Packard!

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