Personal blog of Alicia Fowler, aka @aliciaef, senior strategist at FutureBrand. Topics covered include brands, branding, technology, and space, and more!

Etymology lesson

This post looks at the evolution, or rather degradation, of a word. 


(Warning, this next paragraph is for etymology geeks only.)

Originating in the fifteenth century, incentive means "something that incites to action". We can trace its root from Latin's incentīvus, "that sets the tune, that provokes or incites", which ultimately derives from incantation or incantāre, chant or charm (formed itself from in + cantāre, "sing"). Beautiful and powerful history, right?

The word incentive tends to imply an economic motivation, either in a positive or negative sense: a chance to win an iPad or the ability to avoid an extra tax, for instance. I have two issues with the cloud that surrounds the word incentive: 

  1. There's an unspoken supposition in business that incentives, particularly economic ones, are all that is needed to encourage some desired action. Incentives should be part of a motivational program, but like the 10 day Hollywood diet, that new look will likely fade without proper support. 
  2. The word marks the start of a series of fake words. I realise my love of etymology is predicated on the fact that words evolve, but let's be beautiful with our word evolutions. This is devolution is where I'd like to focus today. 

I once had the chance to witness the fastest degradation of this word, over the course of a semester of Retail Supply Chain Management. Here what we witnessed:

Phase 1: Incentive.

"We will provide customers incentives to shop at our online store."

Phase 2: Incentivize.

"We will incentivize customers to shop at our online store."

Phase 3: Incent.

"We will incent customers to shop at our online store."

Phase 4: Incense.

"We will incense customers to shop at our online store."

I would love to rid English of "-ize" verbs (operationalize, strategize, incentivize, and the rest), but I can't beat their gravitational pull. However, I think I can shape your thinking about the other two.

Incent. This is not a word–for now. I bet in 200 years it will be featured in an etymology, but for now let's not use it. Aside from its status as a sound without meaning, "incent" has a harsh sound to it. Would you like to be incented?

Incense. This is a word, but it means "to set on fire; to inflame with wrath". And that is precisely what you will do to your customers, especially those with English lit majors. 

I said in my earlier post that as marketers we must be choosey selective about our words. Words are both food and spice. We need them to understand one another and we use some of them to tell beautiful, powerful, inspiring stories. Over use some and you've ruined the story. Misuse others and you've not even told your story. As stewards of language, let's help each other tell the best stories possible.