Many of the words that people love to hate come from business and management. They’re often buzzwords or jargon (synergy, deliverables), or they seem like new verbings (action, leverage) or nounings (ask, solutioning). When they spread into more general use, their profile grows and they attract negative attention. Our feelings about them may be coloured by the contexts with which we associate them – a phenomenon known as lexical priming.
Usages like this are often created or revived to meet an expressive need. They fill a gap in what we want to say or how we want to say it. Referring to the examples of skillset and monetize, Michael Rundell, Macmillan Dictionary’s editor-in-chief, describes them as ‘concise ways of expressing a useful meaning, and both are the product of valid word-formation strategies’. So you can ignore any claims that they’re ‘not real words’.
Over time, we get used to new usages. We accept them grudgingly or even enthuse about them. Decades later, the ones that survive have become thoroughly familiar and lack the stigma of novelty. The verb contact, for instance, was loathed a century ago but is perfectly unremarkable today. Until that happens, though, these usages provoke contention, with many people looking askance at them or criticizing them vocally.
So it is with incentivize. Macmillan Dictionary’s entry labels it a ‘business’ word and defines it as ‘to give someone a reason for wanting to work hard’ – to give them an incentive, in other words, but in fewer syllables. The noun incentive is frequent enough to have two stars in Macmillan’s Red Words system. This means it’s one of the 5,000 most common words in English, according to corpus data. Far less common are the related verb incent and noun incentivization.
Commentary on incentivize by usage authorities has focused on its position at the fringes of general use. The Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage (2002) says the word sees ‘little or no use outside of business contexts’, while Burchfield’s 1998 revision of Fowler says it is ‘likely to remain at the outer rim of the standard language for some time’.
The neutrality of these observations contrasts with Garner’s Modern English Usage, which disparages neologisms using –ize (or –ise) as ‘ungainly and often superfluous’. Garner calls incentivize in particular a ‘barbarism’ and says there is ‘no good incentive’ to use it. Those who do use it and find it suitable for their needs would disagree. And if it offers a semantic or pragmatic nuance absent from its synonyms – encourage, motivate, stimulate, and so on – then it’s likely that more people will eventually be incentivized to use it.