Monday, February 20, 2006


The questionnaire, part 2

Back here I mentioned — and started answering — the questionnaire used on Inside the Actors Studio. It's time to get to the second question:

What is your least favourite word?


Actually, it isn't just that. It's really that "incentivize" is representative of a whole class of junk words that curl my hair and make the arteries in my neck bulge. It started, for me, some 25 years ago when I first heard an IBM manager talk about "solutioning the problem". I'm all for useful neologisms, but I can't bear ones that serve no good purpose. Worse, perhaps, is when it's not a new word that's devised, but an old word that's called into use in a way that makes us lose its old, and often valuable, meaning.

IBM likes to use "geography" as a noun to mean, approximately, "an area of the world in which we our business is run by a particular high-level organization." So we often talk about Europe (or, in more IBM-ese, "EMEA", for "Europe, Middle-East, and Africa") as a "geography". That bothers me, but it's not so bad: it hasn't created an unnecessary non-word, and it hasn't destroyed a useful nuance of an existing one.

"Incentivize", on the other hand, has no raison d'être. It seems more acceptable to some than "incent", though I find them equally distasteful; I prefer "motivate". Some have suggested that "incentivize" doesn't quite mean the same thing, that it implies a specific sort of motivation — only different people who've said that to me have professed differing characterizations of what sort of motivation it implies, and so I find it hard to accept that. Besides, it's easy enough to say "motivate financially", if that's what you mean.

On top of that, I see a shift in the meaning of "motivate". I presume this has happened because we don't need its old meaning now, if we "incent" or "incentivize" instead. One day, in a meeting a couple of years ago, a presenter kept using "motivate" in a way I didn't understand, so I asked him what he meant. He'd said, "On this next slide, I motivate our project," and he said that means that he explains why they came to start the project. When I said that that isn't what "motivate" means, and he replied that it's how "they" use it, I began to think I was talking with Humpty Dumpty, in Through the Looking Glass. It since seems to have become ubiquitous, to the detriment of my blood pressure.

A friend who works in a hospital recently told me that someone came to her and said that twins had been born that day, but "one of them demised." There's an old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon in which Calvin says, "Remember when 'access' was a thing? Now, it's something you do. It got verbed." He adds, "Verbing weirds language."

1 comment:

Jim Fenton said...

My non-favorite is "learnings", as in, "What were the learnings from this exercise?" What happened to "lessons"?

I suppose in this case that they have nouned the word "learn".