Friday, December 19, 2008



Here’s a short story about “motivation”, the word.

A few years ago, I was in a meeting wherein a colleague was giving a presentation about a project he was working on. When he said, “My next slide motivates our project,” and switched to a slide that explained why they were doing the work he was describing, I asked a question. “Excuse me,” I said, “but that’s now the third time you’ve used ‘motivate’ in a way that I don’t understand. What do you mean?” He said it means to explain why they’re doing the work — which was, I suppose, clear from the Powerpoint slide.

“But,” I said, "that’s not what ‘motivate’ means.” He replied that it’s certainly what they use it to mean. When I said, “There’s glory for you!”, and he replied, “Huh?”, I said “Never mind,” and he went on with his presentation.

I’ve since heard it often; it seems to have taken over as the new meaning of “motivate”, at least in my company. Whence that?

My guess at the etymology is this:

  1. “Incent” (or “incentivize”) is the word now used to mean what “motivate” used to. We don’t motivate people to do better work now; we incentivize them.
  2. “Motivate” is therefore free to wander, to take a new meaning.
    So watch the progression:
  3. Start with, “This is why we decided to start this project.”
  4. Then, “This is the motivation behind our project.”
  5. Then, with the inevitable verbing, “This motivates our project.”
And there we are.
“[...] and that shows that there are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents—”

“Certainly,” said Alice.

“And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!”

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’ ” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”

“Would you tell me, please,” said Alice “what that means?”

“Now you talk like a reasonable child,” said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. “I meant by ‘impenetrability’ that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.”

“That’s a great deal to make one word mean,” Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

“When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “I always pay it extra.”

“Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There”
by Lewis Carroll

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