Bad Words Like Incent

Which one or more of the following is not recognized as a word in the English language?





April Fool’s!

They are all recognized as words, though usage experts frown on all four. They are all classified as back-formation words (from administer, enthusiasm, incentivize, orientation). Some back-formation words catch on and gain approval from usage experts.  Examples include escalate from escalator and diagnose from diagnosis.  (For usage statements in this post, I draw entirely on a post here.)

Incent appears to be struggling. It is a young word, first appearing in 1977 and next in 1981.  But, in legal scholarship, a boon threatens. Since its first appearance in a law review article, in 1992 (in Nebraska Law Review), through 2008, it appeared only 33 times total, never more than five times in any year and not at all in four of those years. But in 2009, incent appeared in 16 law review articles, including in three other admirable flagship journals (Boston College, Cardozo and Texas Law Reviews).

I join the usage experts, and some legal scholars like Ann Bartow (see here),  to frown on the word and write this post to discourage its future appearance in law reviews.  I do this with some hesitation, however, as the word has appeared in excellent articles by two colleagues, one current and one former, and several other scholars whose work I likewise know and esteem. It also has appeared in other flagship journals I admire (Case Western, Connecticut, Stanford and Wisconsin).

Even so, I urge authors and editors to eschew this back-formation. Indeed, I appreciate how the word’s only law review appearance in 1999 took the form of a quotation, with [sic] inserted afterwards.  Nice job, Rob Merges and the Harvard Journal of Law & Technology.

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9 Responses

  1. rusty says:

    What incents you to write this? Being incensed by the 2009 data?

  2. Bobo Linq says:

    You may want to revise this.

    “Administrate” is a back-formation from “administration,” not “administer.” Usage experts frown upon it precisely because the perfectly serviceable “administer” already exists.

    Enthuse — this is indeed a back-formation from enthusiasm.

    “Incent” is a back-formation from “incentive,” not from “incentivize.” As with “administrate,” the back-formation is discouraged by usagists because a serviceable word (“incentivize”) already does the work of the back-formation.

    Orientate — you correctly note that this is a back-formation from orientation.

    Back-formations result for one of two reasons: (1) the back-formation nicely fills a gap better than other available words (“enthuse” is a good example); or (2) the back-formation comes more readily to mind than the standard word (e.g., “administrate” for “administer”) for people with limited vocabularies. It is this correlation with limited vocabularies, I think, that is at the root of usagists’ disapproval of back-formations.

  3. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    Re 1 rusty, that’s cute.

    Re 2 Bobo Ling, thanks for the general affirmation. Follow-ups:

    (a) Your 2nd paragraph offers to corect that “administrate” is a back-formation from “administration,” not “administer.” Yet your final paragraph illustrates the ready-to-mind notion by contrasting “administrate” to “administer” (as I and the source I reference had it.) Perhaps it matters less than you insinuate from what coinage a back-formation comes (whether “administrate” is a back-formation from “administration” or “administer.”).

    (b) Your 4th paragraph offers to correct that “incent” is a back-formation from “incentive,” not from “incentivize.”
    Again, given (a), why does that matter? Moreover, incent is used as a verb, to incent, suggesting it stands in for to incentivize, not for incentive. Yet again, why does this matter?

    (c) Your limited vocabularly thesis for usage expert rejection of words like incent is interesting. In this post’s context, there is no doubt that legal scholars command prodigious vocabularies. Something else may be going on. After all, it should be possible to identify a better word in every context I read in the law review articles using the word incent, including: stimulate, provoke, induce, entice, motivate, spur, prompt, impel, prod, rouse. When the rich extant English language will do, there is no need to make up new words that do not resonate.

  4. Jeff Lipshaw says:

    I recall that now Professor Robert Weisberg, when he was the EIC of the Stanford Law Review, banned, among other things, “Kafka-esque” and “utilize”, which I assume is a back formation of utilization, in favor of the simpler “use.” (I wasn’t on the law review, but I used to walk by its office from time to time, and saw the sign on the bulletin board.)

  5. Miriam A. Cherry says:

    What do you think of tasking, i.e. “so and so has tasked me with xyz” or “so and so was tasked with xyz.” I have been hearing that a lot lately and it sort of bugs me, but haven’t figured out why. Maybe just meeting speak.

  6. Jeff Lipshaw says:

    Miriam, “task” as a verb is pure corp-o-speak. It’s also a guy thing to make verbs out of nouns.

  7. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    Miriam: I share your chagrin. Jeff is probably right. I still don’t like it. Reports say it dates to 1530. Yet a usage fad grips us. I suggest that we them to task!

  8. Bob Manley says:

    As it happens, “incent” and “incentivize” are both back-formations from “incentive”. I can’t speak for the first date of use of either word in a law review article, but in mainstream publishing, “incentivize” dates back to the 1970s, and “incent” has been used since the 1980s.

  9. Lachlan says:

    Bob: “Incentivize” is derived from “incentive”, but isn’t a back-formation. A back-formation comes from removing what seems to be a suffix, not adding one.