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 Is my dictionary out of date?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: We’ve found “incent” in four standard dictionaries, though two of them (Collins and Oxford Dictionaries online) describe it as an American usage, and Collins adds that it’s “not standard.”

However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list it without comment (that is, as standard English).

“Incent” is what’s known as a back-formation, in this case formed from “incentive.” As you might suspect, it means to provide an incentive or to incentivize.

Although “incent” hasn’t been accepted wholeheartedly by all standard dictionaries, it’s been around for more than a century and a half.

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first citation for the word appears in an 1840 issue of the Rover, a New York literary weekly:

“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 next OED citation, dated 1898, is from a British source, Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates: “The noble Lord went so far … as to charge … Mr. Tilak with incenting to murder.”

Back-formations are pretty common in English. Examples of verbs that began as back-formations from nouns are “diagnose” (from “diagnosis”), “escalate” (from “escalator”), “baby-sit” (from “babysitter”), and “curate” (from “curator”).

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

Not every word you find in dictionaries is pleasing to every ear. We, for example, find “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 a back-formation that’s out there but not (yet) in standard dictionaries is “adolesce” (from “adolescence”), as in “He hasn’t finished adolescing yet.”

[Note: This post was updated on July 6, 2016, at the suggestion of a reader.]

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