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Today’s Report from the Treasury: Incendiary Language By Geithner?

January 18, 2011

It’s right there in plain sight, all over the 34-page document issued today by the Department of the Treasury’s Financial Stability Oversight Council.

The offending term appears no fewer than five times throughout the study, “Macroeconomic Effects of Risk Retention Requirements,” authored (nominally, at least) by Secretary and FSOC chair Tim Geithner.  In fact, its first occurrence comes on the very first page of text, in the report’s Executive Summary: “to the extent that risk retention can incent better lending decisions, it may help to mitigate . . .”

If you didn’t catch it, well, that’s a sign that you may be a little too immersed in your bureaucratic bubble.  Here’s a news flash: the word “incent” is not really a word. Well, okay, maybe technically it is (keep it in mind for your next Scrabble game). But in the eyes of many stewards of the English language, it shouldn’t be.

As several authorities note, the Oxford English Dictionary traces the origin of “incent” to 1977, with the neologism beginning to appear in reputable dictionaries some time during the last decade or so.  It’s an example of the linguistic phenomenon of “back formation,” in which a new word is invented by truncating a corresponding word of a different part of speech (in this case, the noun “incentive”).  Other examples are “enthuse,” “attrit,” “liaise,” and “orientate.”

The ascent of "incent." Image by Chris Hitt.

The problem with “incent,” then, is partly its newness, which gives it a jargony and disorienting quality.  But that’s not all.  There is also the fact that a slightly more legitimate and entrenched (though admittedly still jargony) word, “incentivize,” means exactly the same thing.  Perhaps most compellingly, there is the fact that “incent” is ugly. It is waaaay too close to words like “insect” and “incest.”

A few months ago in blogmosaic, we wrote about the word “leverage,” which is similarly dissonant when forced into duty as a transitive verb.  That, we noted, is how Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz used it in his almost comically infelicitous construction, “we continued to improve our customer experience, [and] further leverage our coffee authority.”

But the difference between “to leverage” and “to incent,” our not-so-scientific research indicates, is that the former is past its peak, while the latter continues to gain currency.  The chart above shows the ascent of “incent” over the last 15 years, as measured by its occurrence in SEC Filings.  Its climb has been steady.  The word occurred in only 30 filings in 1995.  That number had risen to 303 by 2000, to 583 by 2008, and to 863 last year.

One wonders: will Geithner’s embrace of the word merely incense grammarians?  Or will it actually incent others to adopt the word?

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