No longer so incensed about incentivized

In the wake of the Wall Street bailout deal, the Monitor's language columnist considers the vocabulary of motivation.

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A couple of weeks ago, Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University, gathered six of her high-powered faculty together for a panel discussion of the current economic turmoil. As anyone who hasn't been in a cave for most of this year can imagine, they had plenty to discuss.

One of the challenges of disentangling the mortgage mess, one of the panelists argued, is that these loans have all been sliced and diced so that there's no real sense of ownership anymore.

And so an individual borrower in trouble is unlikely to be able to meet with someone at the local thrift institution to work out a deal. (George Bailey, phone your office.) As the professor put it, there is "no single entity properly authorized and properly incentivized to work out a deal the way the old-time investor would."

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I was struck by the cogency and forthrightness of her argument – and by the awful thought, is that the best we can do for a verb, "incentivized"??

Merriam-Webster traces incentivize to 1970. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language gives this usage example: "This bill will help incentivize everybody to solve that part of the problem."

Incentivize is an add-on form of incentive used as an adjective, in expressions like "incentive bonus," to a contractor for finishing a building project ahead of schedule, for instance. It's a usage that goes back to World War II ("jargon of the US war economy," as the Online Etymology Dictionary puts it). Disincentive goes back to 1946.

But in a more general sense, "something that incites or has a tendency to incite to determination or action," as Merriam-Webster puts it, incentive goes back to the 15th century. It comes from Latin, and the underlying idea is "setting the tune." (He who pays the piper calls the tune, I can't help thinking.)

The word was also influenced by the Latin word incendere, "to kindle," which suggests the idea of "setting a fire" under someone. This is the same root that gives us incendiary, as in "incendiary rhetoric," – words likely to make people burn with anger, or more concretely touch off rioting – as well as incense, both as noun (something burned to produce a pleasant odor) or verb (to anger – "incensed about a tax increase").

Are there other options to consider? Encourage? Possibly, but it can sound like mere lip service compared with incentivize, which suggests money.

Motivate is a good synonym. The professor I quoted above could have said "properly authorized and properly motivated" and she would have been understood.

From the lexicon of headlines, we have spur, with its vivid image of a rider's heels going into a horse: "Rezoning spurs development on South Side."

There's "making (something) worth (someone's) while," an informal idiom suggesting remuneration for someone who takes on a task. But a bit of a cloud hangs over this expression. The Free Dictionary, for instance, notes that it refers especially to "something bad or illegal," and the usage example it gives is, "If you can get us his personal files, we'll make it worth your while."

It may be that incentivize, rooted as it is in the concreteness of bureaucracy and policy wonkiness, is the right word for these times. If the United States is headed back to an era of at least somewhat more economic regulation, even if only to carry out the bailout program, there's going to be market demand for words to describe ways of steering people's actions. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

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