Centuries of disgust and horror?

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In his post "In defense of Amazon's Mechanical Turk", Chris Potts wrote "Overall, the workers are incentivized to do well". David M. Chess commented

Interesting post! Thanks for writing it up.

But… "incentivized"?

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1994) says of incentivize that "This is perhaps the most recent of the infamous verbs that end in -ize", noting that the members of a usage panel in 1985 "rejected it almost unanimously with varying degrees of disgust and horror".

But why are coinages in -ize such an enduring source of disgust and horror?

In 1980, Jacques Barzun argued that containerize was "unnecessary jargon", since the verb box was already available. In 1976, Edwin Newman objected strongly to prioritize, personalize, traumatize, and hospitalize (A Civil Tongue, in a section entitled "Them there ize"). In 1870, Richard Grant White said that jeopardize was "a foolish and intolerable word" — he recommended in its place the verb jeopard. And skipping back over a few centuries of documented revulsion, we find the OED leading off its entry for -ize with this citation:

1591 NASHE Introd. Sidney's Astr. & Stella in P. Penilesse (Shaks. Soc.) p. xxx, Reprehenders, that complain of my boystrous compound wordes, and ending my Italionate coyned verbes all in ize.

The context of this phrase is amusing enough to quote at greater length:

The ploddinger sort of unlearned Zoilists about London exclaim that it is a puft-up stile, and full of prophane eloquence: others object unto me the multitude of my boystrous compound wordes, and the often coyning of Italionate verbes, which end all in ize, as mummianize, tympanize, tirannize. To the first array of my clumperton antagonists this I answer — that my stile is no otherwise puft up, then any mans should be which writes with any spirite; and whom would not such a devine subject put a high ravishte spirite into? For the prophaneness of my eloquence, so they may terme the eloquence of Sainct Austin, Jerome, Chrysostome, prophane, since none of them but takes unto him faire more liberty of tropes, figures, and metaphors, and alleadging heathen examples and histories.

To the second rancke of reprehenders, that complain of my boystrous compound wordes, and ending my Italionate coyned verbes all in ize, thus I reply: that no winde that blowes strong but is boystrous, no speech or wordes, or any power of force to confute or persuade, but must be swelling and boystrous. For the compounding of my wordes, therein I imitate rich men, who, having gathered store of white single money together, convert a number of those small little scutes into great peeces of gold, such as double pistols and Portugues. Our English tongue, of all languages, most swarmeth with the single money of monasillables, which are the onely scandal of it. Bookes written in them, and no other, seeme like shop-keepers boxes, that contain nothing else save halfe-pence, three farthings and two-pences. Therefore, what did me I, but having a huge heape of those worthlesse shreds of small English in my pia mater's purse, had them to the compounders immediately, and exchanged them foure into one, and others into more, according to the Greek, French, Spanish, and Italian.

Come, my maisters, enure your mouths to it, and never trust me, but when you have tride the commodity of carrying much in a small roome, you will, like the apothecaries, use more compounds than simples, and graft wordes as men do their trees, to make them more fruitfull. My upbraided Italionate verbes are the least crime of a thousand, since they are growne in generall request with every good poet.

Besides, they carrie farre more state with them then any other, and are not halfe so harsh in their desinence as the old hobling English verbes ending in r: they express more than any other verbes whatsoever, and that substantives would be quite barraine of verbs, but for that ending. This word mummianized, in the beginning of my first Epistle, is shrewdly called into question, for no other reason, that I can conceive, but that his true derivative, which is mummy, is somewhat obscure also: to phisitions and their confectioners it is as familiar as mumchance among pages, being nothing else but mans flesh long buried and broyled in the burning sands of Arabia. Hereupon I have taken up this phrase of Jerusalems mummianized earth manured with mans flesh. Express who can the same substance so briefly in any other word but that. A man may murder any thing if hee list in the mouthing, and grinde it to powder extempore betwixt a huge paire of jawes, but let a quest of calme censors goe upon it betwixt the houres of sixe and seaven in the morning, and they will, in their grave wisdome, subscribe to it as tollerable and significant.

Neologisms in -ize have been springing up in English like mushrooms for five hundred years. Some of them catch on, while others don't — among the three that Nashe cites, tyrannize is in common use today, while tympanize and mummianize are not. The general pattern seems to be that some people react very negatively to a certain class of -ize coinages, for a generation or so, and then those that have endured lose their taint. I doubt that David would react to tyrannize, and probably not to hospitalize. But for now, incentivize is still stigmatized. (The efforts of Edwin Newman and others also probably have played a role in sensitizing people to certain coinages; also, I have the impression that words coined in business or advertising, like incentivize and accessorize, are much more likely to annoy people, in contrast to words from science, like randomize and pressurize.)

One interesting thing about the -ize stigma is that it seems to apply only to words based on common nouns (and in some cases, adjectives), not those derived from names. Thus as far as I know, there has never been any objection to galvanize, mesmerize, bowdlerize, mercerize, chaptalize, vulcanize; or for that matter to hellenize, romanize, americanize.

There's also apparently a special license for scientific words — thus randomize, dating from 1926, and pressurize, dating from 1940, never seems to have been a source of disgust and horror.

But otherwise, a strong initial revulsion to -ize coinages based on common nouns has apparently been in effect for nearly half a millennium.  With respect to each particular coinage, the reaction eventually fades if the word sticks around.  Judging by hospitalize (first spotted in 1901) and traumatize (first spotted in 1903), which Edwin Newman railed against in 1976 but which seem to be generally accepted today, it can take up to a century for -ize coinages in the general vocabulary to make it out of quarantine. (Perhaps the half-life of -ize peeves has decreased a bit lately. The OED dates accessorize to 1929, and Bryan Garner condemned it in the 1998 edition of Modern American Usage — "neologisms ending in -ize are generally to be discouraged, for they are invariably ungainly and often superfluous. Thus we have no use for accessorize, …" — but this prescription seems to have been dropped from the 2009 edition.)

I'm puzzled by the durability and specificity of this set of prescriptive reactions. Is it just a random development, like the attitudes about stranded  prepositions, with each generation inheriting from its parents what was originally a completely gratuitous prejudice?  Or is there a genuine source of cultural tension in the morpheme -ize and the way it's used to form (some) new words?


  1. Andrew said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 11:07 am

    Why are -ize words subject to this treatment? I say that this is the fate of most lexical innovation, and -ize is a productive suffix for lexical innovation. I don't think -ize is special, just common.

    This seems to be a fairly transparent case of people associating pieces of language with social classes or behaviors they hold in contempt, and holding the pieces of language in contempt by extension. This is especially the case when -ize words are buzzwords for certain circles, like accessorize for the fashion-oriented and incentivize for the business/management-oriented. I suspect that people who recoil in horror at those words also sneer at these groups of people (or at least their stereotypes), but don't sneer at scientists or their -ize words. The disgust fades once the words break out into the general public, and can no longer be associated with any one group.

    [(myl) The "stigmatized group" idea is surely part of the explanation in the case of incentivize; but I don't think that it's true that -ize is no more peeved at than any other productive suffix. As I noted in the post, -ize with proper names seems not to raise anyone's hackles; and I can't recall every having heard an objection to a coinage in (for example) -ism or -er, whether the stem was proper or common. ]

  2. Jasper Milvain said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 11:10 am

    As a trainee subeditor on the Nottingham Evening Post, I was warned not to allow pressurise in any sense other than the scientific – specifically, we weren't to use it for the application of metaphorical pressure to a person or institution. I'm not sure whether this is evidence against your sense of this peeve's shape, or further evidence for it.

  3. Bob Jonkman said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 11:11 am

    While I dislike "incentivize", I dislike even more the infinitive, "to incent", eg. "A bonus will incent the workers to be more productive". Lots more at http://www.google.ca/search?q="will+incent"


  4. Robert Coren said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 11:12 am

    I predict that objections to incentivize will decrease as the objectors take up arms against its more modern substitute, incent.

  5. Kenny V said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 11:19 am

    How strange–I would have thought that people would find more acceptable those compounds wherein the root is Greek (-ize being directly gotten from a Greek present tense verb marker), but people once rejected "traumatize"? I have encountered a few old Classics professors who object to Greek/Latin hybrids (prioritize, personalize), but that doesn't seem to shape any sort of systematic mode of rejection, either. Other than the few realms you identified as producing more acceptable -ize verbs, I don't see any pattern to it (though there are surely constraints that tilt things one way of the other hiding in there somewhere).

  6. Jasper Milvain said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 11:20 am

    Also, if you enjoy Elizabethan literary beefs, Nashe vs Gabriel Harvey is greatly to be recommended – there are long extracts in the Penguin selection of Nashe.

  7. Kenny V said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 11:22 am

    Also, I loved the lengthy quote from Mr. Nashe. What a gangster.

    I've never heard of "incent," and it sounds terrible to me; probably contributes to the acceptance of incentivize, which sounds almost completely fine to me.

  8. Kenny Easwaran said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 11:44 am

    I suspect this may be connected to a prescription to use simpler words rather than longer foreign words, like "use" versus "utilize".

    [(myl) That's certainly the case for Barzun's complaint that containerized should be boxed. (Note that this substitute would be misleading in most cases, since "containerized cargo" is quite different from "boxed cargo" — another indication that prescriptivists' arguments about precision of expression are usually a rationalization of emotional reactions.) But often, the -ize word substitutes for a phrase, e.g. hospitalize.]

  9. Arnold Zwicky said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 11:45 am

    On the verbs incent and incentivize: both are relatively recent, though incentivize (with either spelling) seems to be a bit older; in draft entries of September 2003, the OED has incentivize from 1968, incent (marked as originally and chiefly North American) from 1977.

  10. marie-lucie said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 11:49 am

    In spite of the fact that English easily turns verbs into nouns, and nouns into verbs, there might be a preference for verbs which are unmistakably verbs, as shown by the suffix -ize. A coinage like "incent" is weird as a verb: it is back-formed from the noun incentive, but beside the fact that back-formation is less common than suffixation, removing the -ive suffix (common in Latin borrowings) to form a verb is not a common type of back-formation (ex. tentative would not be likely to produce "to tentat", or initiative "to initiat"). So the easiest way to make incentive into a verb (barring using just the bare word) is to add the strictly verbalizing suffix -ize.

    Many new coinages or usages originate in specific contexts before (sometimes) passing into common speech. I remember when the verb to impact first came to attention when General Alexander Haig, who had not been a well-known figure until then, had to substitute for President Reagan when the latter was the victim of an assassination attempt, and used the verb in his first speech. The verbal use of impact had been common in the military but was unknown among the general public. Similarly, containerize or accessorize started in different contexts, the latter coming from the fashion industry, with which not everyone (especially not too many men) is familiar.

    On the other hand, it seems to me that the -ize suffix implies a somewhat passive, usually inanimate object (even hospitalize implies a "patient" who submits to the ministrations of others). Perhaps those who advocate "to incent" rather than "to incentivize" are (more or less consciously) trying to avoid those implications in their attempts to affect their employees.

  11. Andrew said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 11:53 am


    I think you make your point clearer in your response to my comment, and I appreciate it better.

    I myself have heard disdain at words like "carer," "consumer", and "Creationism", but such contempt does seem to be less common and widespread than that oriented towards -ize-words. Then again, it seems more common (and easier) to create words with -ize than with those other suffixes, but that's my own impression.

    One more recent productive suffix that might be in the same league as -ize is -ista, taken presumably from fashionista and barista, extended to words like recessionista, which a lot of people hate

    [(myl) I certainly didn't mean to suggest that no one ever objects to neologisms involving affixes other than -ize. A little further thought brought up ageism, which has certainly been the object of some prescriptivist scorn. I still haven't come up with any troublesome derivations in -ify, however. And I'm pretty confident that -ize is towards the high-peeve end of the distribution of English affixes. ]

  12. acilius said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

    Since all David M. Chess said was "But… incentivized?" we aren't licensed to say that he objects to the "-ize" formation. I can see two other possible grounds for objection. First is that which Harry Campbell took up in his 11:16am reply, "It should of course be incentivised."

    The other possible objection is not to this particular compound, but to the underlying word "incentive." Compare these sentences:

    1. "Overall, the workers are incentivized to do well."

    2. "Overall, the workers are rewarded for doing well."

    The only difference I can see between these two sentences is that the word "rewarded" is one any English speaker might use and feel a sense of ownership over. The word "incentivized," by contrast, fits with a management-speak jargon that treats "incentive" as a technical term. As a coinage, "incentivize" extends that jargon.

    Of course, there are times when jargon is necessary. New ideas often need new words to name them. That is precisely why jargon has power. Jargon enables those who have been initiated into it to shut down protests from those who have not been initiated into it. If, let's say, experts in linguistics take control of a discussion on linguistic phenomena through interventions that involve technical terms in linguistics, this may be to the good. Yet because a typical modern person encounters so many unfamiliar ideas and things, jargon has this power even when it is unnecessary. It must therefore be resisted.

    What about management-speak? It would not be too much to say that if we accept it when managers treat words as jargon, then we also accept the treatment those same managers deal out to the subordinates whom they use those words to silence. Where we can defend the actions of management on ethical grounds, then perhaps it might be acceptable to arm managers with a specialized jargon.

  13. Mark Liberman said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 12:26 pm

    acilius: The only difference … between ["…are incentivized to do well" and "…are rewarded for doing well"] is that the word "rewarded" is one any English speaker might use and feel a sense of ownership over.

    I don't think that this is accurate. An incentive, in the OED's gloss, is "Something that arouses feeling, or incites to action; an exciting cause or motive; an incitement, provocation, ‘spur’". A reward is "A return or recompense made to, or received by, a person for some favour, service or merit, or for hardship endured".

    The idea that workers are induced to behave in a certain way is not the same as the idea that they are rewarded for having behaved in a certain way. And in the case under discussion, Chris was making the point that Mechanical Turk workers are given (in advance) an incentive to do good work, not that they are rewarded (after the fact) for having done good work. The latter happens to be true as well — assuming, as I do, that amazon didn't default on its agreements with them — but it's not relevant.

    You're welcome not to like incentivize, and not to use it. But don't rationalize your reactions by pretending that it means something that it doesn't.

  14. Rich Olson said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

    I have always hated "incent" and certainly "incentivize" because I never heard either of them used except in places where "motivate" would have fit perfectly. They seemed to be merely management jargon.

    On the other hand, to me "containerize" and "box" have distinct meanings.

    [(myl) For a case where motivate would not "fit perfectly" in place of incentivize, consider the phrase that started this off:

    (a) The workers are incentivized to do well.
    (b) The workers are motivated to do well.

    In version (b), we can't tell where the motivation comes from — perhaps the workers' upbringing, or their dedication to linguistics, or competition with one another, or team spirit? There's certainly no requirement that the pay they get for doing well is better than the pay they get for not doing well; or indeed that they are paid at all.

    In version (a), we really don't know anything about the workers' attitudes, or for that matter about their performance. We're just asserting that they're given a financial incentive to do well.

    As I wrote in discussing the idea that incentivized is just jargon for rewarded, you're welcome not to like the word, and not to use it — and for that matter you may object to the whole idea of trying to guide behavior by financial incentives. But you shouldn't rationalize your reactions by misrepresenting the meaning of words. ]

  15. David M. Chess said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 12:36 pm

    Ooh, fame! :) I had only two hopes for my little comment: that it might stir up some worthwhile discussion in following comments, and that it might express my own visceral and most likely irrational dislike for the word without risking any falsifiable truth-claims. I am a fan of the verb "incent", although if some of that fondness stemmed from my mistaken belief that it was older or more legitimate than "incentivize", that stem has now been cut. (I must use the shorter word now and then myself, based on the number of hits my personal weblog gets from poor spellers searching for "incent sex stories" and so on.)

    Little did I dream it would lead to an entire posting. My day is made!

  16. Rubrick said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 12:39 pm

    @marie-lucie: (ex. tentative would not be likely to produce "to tentat", or initiative "to initiat"). How about "to initiate"? (Obviously not a back-formation; just pointing out that one of your examples doesn't hold up. I don't know that there's any evidence that -ize is less prone to back-formation than any other suffix.)

  17. marie-lucie said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 1:15 pm


    Assuming that the verb "to incent" or "to incentivize" (both forms were unfamiliar to me) means "to give an incentive to (sbdy)", one form being created by back-formation (removing the suffix -ive from the noun) the other by addition of the suffix -ize in order to create a verb, my point is that the suffixing formation sounds less strange than the back-formation: according to the reactions described above, even people who hate "incentivize" recognize and understand the form as deriving from "incentive", but those encountering "incent" tend to be puzzled by it. I never said anything about back-forming from a verb in -ize (but since it is a productive suffix, usually added to existing words, there would be no point in removing it in order to make yet another word: "to productivize" for 'to make sthg productive' would be much more likely than "to product").

    Applying the same back-formation process to "initiative" as to "incentive" would give "to initiat", a hypothetical verb which would have a different meaning from "to initiate": the latter means "to start (a process)", while the hypothetical (and most unlikely) "to initiat" (or alternately "to initiativize") could mean something like "to give the initiative to (sbdy)" (for instance, to give them the go-ahead to proceed with developing their own idea).

    I am just commenting in a descriptive manner on the processes of word-formation, not advocating for one or the other. Back-formation does exist, but the general trend in English is for affixation, especially suffixation. As far as I know, removing the -ive suffix is not usual in English, so "to incent" would seem to have less of a chance of becoming the norm than "to incentivize".

  18. The Volokh Conspiracy said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

    Incentivize, Jeopardize, Tyrannize, and Other -Izes:…

    A very interesting post on reactions to -ize coinages over the centuries, by linguistics professor Mark Liberman (Language Log)….

  19. Steve Harris said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

    Possible future use for "intiativize" (or some other word meaning "to give the initiative to":

    A common past-time for some is the so-called fantasy role-playing game, in which a group of people, in a face-to-face circle, each martial a character through a cooperative adventure. Often, the characters must act in a serial manner, and as each character's turn to act comes (in an order that is frequently randomized), that character is said to have the initiative, and the randomization process for establishing the order is usually called an initiative roll (roll of dice). I've never come across a single-word verb to denote having the initiative pass from one character to the next ("It's so-and-so's turn next" is the most common locution); but this might be a natural place for "initiativize" to come into use.

  20. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 1:58 pm

    I'm with David in my "visceral and most likely irrational dislike" specificially for incentivize. My beef with it (apart from my general beef with management-speak) is that its meaning is not immediately obvious to me. The comments all seem to agree that incentivize obviously means something akin to "motivate." But couldn't incentivize also have meant "to turn something into an incentive"?

    And what of "incentivized freebie websites" (Google it!)? That certainly doesn't mean the same as "motivated freebie websites." (What would the alternative be? Incentivization freebie websites?)

    In general, though, -ize is a great word tool. But like any tool, it can be misused. We anti-incentivizationalists probably just feel like "incentivize" is a misuse, though we can't quite put our finger on how.

  21. marie-lucie said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 1:58 pm

    Do you mean that I might actually have coined a word, which is waiting to be used? Do try it next time you play that game.

  22. HP said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 2:09 pm

    I'm surprised no one has mentioned the inspirational story of moisturize, which has won widespread acceptance despite multiple handicaps.

  23. James Eaves-Johnson said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

    I think everyone is working too hard to problematize the word "incentivize," when there are much better words ending "-ize" to target for criticism!

  24. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

    @ Jasper Milvain, who writes: "As a trainee subeditor on the Nottingham Evening Post, I was warned not to allow pressurise in any sense other than the scientific – specifically, we weren't to use it for the application of metaphorical pressure to a person or institution."
    You were well advised. If you apply metaphorical pressure to somebody, you "pressure" them, you don't "pressurise" them. Aircraft passenger cabins are pressurised, not people. (But of course dictionaries, quite properly, admit both senses of "pressurise".)

  25. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 3:15 pm

    The greater dislike for business-originated coinages than academic-originated coinages would seem to be further evidence for my contrarian account of prescriptivist peevishness as a more left-wing phenomenon than is commonly acknowledged. I'm interested to see that Nashe spelled his productive suffix -ize rather than -ise. In most of the places where there's a systematic US/UK divergence in spelling (e.g. center/centre, flavor/flavour, fetus/foetus), I think of the US version as being the innovation, based perhaps on Noah Webster's reformist impulses or some sort of rough frontier pragmatism, and the UK version as being older — typically further from actual English pronunciation but more transparently revealing Latin or French origin. But apparently not here.

    [(myl) The Oxford English Dictionary uses the spelling "-ize" throughout, and justifies this choice in its entry for the affix:

    … the suffix itself, whatever the element to which it is added, is in its origin the Gr. -ιζειν, L. -izāre; and, as the pronunciation is also with z, there is no reason why in English the special French spelling should be followed, in opposition to that which is at once etymological and phonetic. In this Dictionary the termination is uniformly written -ize.

    As for the idea that "prescriptivist peevishness [is] a more left-wing phenomenon than is commonly acknowledged", we have only to consider George Orwell, T.H. White, and Louis Menand to see the truth of this idea.

    However, I don't think that the right/left perspective is very helpful here. It's true that prescriptive attitudes can be justified in "conservative" or "progressive" ways — language should stay as (someone thinks that) it used to be; or language ought to be reformed along (what someone believes to be) rational lines. But revulsion against the jargon of business or advertising (or literary criticism or the military) is just a simple matter of tribal prejudices, don't you think? ]

  26. Sergei Zhulik said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

    I've noticed a similar sort of resistance to the adjectival ending -esque, especially noteworthy in two instances:

    a) Where -esque is established as a noun's adjectival ending–nevertheless, a remotely viable, short alternative exists, however awkward. (E.g., statue-like rather than statuesque.)

    b) Where there's general agreement that an adjective may be formed from a root noun, but no widespread consensus as to its form. (E.g., Hitlerian rather than Hitleresque.)

  27. Karen said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 4:00 pm

    The people who crack me up are the ones who object to -ize, but also object to mere cross-categorization (ie, "verbing"). They want to freeze English as it was spoken in their childhood, I believe, but have no rationale for why *their* childhood should be so privileged.

  28. Nathan Myers said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

    On the subject of Dungeons'n'Dragons™, ever since my brother coined for the entire genre "myguydoesthis", I have been unable to think of such gaming by any other term.

    Should we assume that "to tympanize" means to "to make a drum of the skin of", referring to the preferred treatment of one's enemies? How could such a word have ever fallen into disuse?

  29. David Eddyshaw said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 4:22 pm

    "Incentivized" seems pretty precise, not synonymous with "motivated" or "encouraged" or any obvious single word that I can think of, and probably is pretty useful in its original management-consultant domain.

    Actually "precise" is perhaps not exactly what I mean; the word is (I suppose) useful because it generalises over different sorts of incentive while keeping the implication that the incentive comes from outside the incentivizee.

    Objection to it is surely a matter of shooting the signifier out of distaste for the signified; the obverse of all those surveys revealing that the most euphonious word in English is "kindness" or whatever.

  30. Mark F. said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 4:55 pm

    I believe Kilpatrick once complained about "parameterize" in an economics paper. If he had known the term came from math and physics, he probably would have let it pass.

    Actually, if you interpret anti-ize-ism as a manifestation of resistance to language change, then it makes sense that people would be more tolerant of its appearance in the sciences, since word-coining is understood to be necessary there.

    Which leads me to wonder if objection to language change is necessarily unjustifiable. Resisting language change is said to be like resisting the tide, but the Dutch have done fairly well at the latter, and I really wonder if a concerted, organized effort either to stabilize the language or to cultivate linguistic innovation might actually change the rate at which today's language becomes unintelligible to our descendants.

  31. Rick S said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 5:06 pm

    My hunch is that -ize incites resentment because, as Merriam Webster says, "Almost any noun or adjective can be made into a verb by adding -ize". Thus, anyone, even the most common and illiterate person, can coin new verbs with next to no effort, and in particular without having to search for a well-known verb or phrase without the semantic ambiguity inherent in -ize (as Andy Hollandbeck pointed out). To peevologists, enabling such laziness must seem like promoting lexical anarchy.

    True, other productive suffixes are as easy to use, but are they as semantically flexible? Merriam Webster Online lists six meanings for -ize, but some of them seem pretty vague or general, and I suspect that list is incomplete. For example, none of them seems to fit categorize "to put into a category" or characterize "to describe the character or quality of" very well.

  32. Picky said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 5:21 pm

    Is there an transAtlantic difference here, because (and I leave aside the Nottingham Evening Post, which has often ploughed its own furrow; and I leave aside the -ise -ize stuff, which has the great authorities of BrE firmly in favour of -ize and everyone else in the British Isles quite happy with the renegade -ise in most cases) because, I say, I think incentivise raises but few eyebrows in the UK, and pressurise likewise(ise). Perhaps we are less unhappy with iseing?

    This is despite the fact that incentivise is clearly management jargon and thus a prime candidate for the lamppost (said he, exhibiting a tribal prejudice).

  33. Matthew Austin said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

    "I still haven't come up with any troublesome derivations in -ify, however."

    'Happify' was a word widely used in publications in my religious upbringing in 1970s England. It was disliked by members of the congregation and considered to be an Americanism (all the literature we used came from the US). I don't have any problem with the morphology of the word – only the odd associations it brings to mind.

    [(myl) Wow. I'm pretty sure that I've never seen this form. And my inner Edwin Newman is reacting with howls of outrage, despite the fact that a quick web search uncovers the fact that happify was apparently coined by Noah Webster himself, in his blue-backed speller: "Q. What are the advantages of [mercy]? A. The exercise of it tends to happify everyone". ]

  34. marie-lucie said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 5:34 pm

    @Sergei Zhulik:

    I've noticed a similar sort of resistance to the adjectival ending -esque, especially noteworthy in two instances:

    a) Where -esque is established as a noun's adjectival ending–nevertheless, a remotely viable, short alternative exists, however awkward. (E.g., statue-like rather than statuesque.)

    b) Where there's general agreement that an adjective may be formed from a root noun, but no widespread consensus as to its form. (E.g., Hitlerian rather than Hitleresque.)

    Is it really a resistance to the suffix -esque, or the fact that there is a difference of meaning? according to my understanding:

    a) a "statuesque" person (a term usually applied to a woman) is tall, well-built and imposing, while "statue-like" suggests a stiff, rigid, unmoving posture: for instance you could say that the guards at Buckingham Palace are supposed to stand statue-like no matter what passers-by might do to attract their attention. In any case, "statue-like" is not shorter than "statuesque";

    b) "Hitlerian" refers to whatever is or was connected to Hitler's regime, while "Hitleresque" would mean "resembling Hitler". A man (for instance an actor) could grow a Hitleresque moustache without being in any way associated with the ideas and actions of the Hitlerian regime.

  35. marie-lucie said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 5:47 pm

    Mark F: I really wonder if a concerted, organized effort either to stabilize the language or to cultivate linguistic innovation might actually change the rate at which today's language becomes unintelligible to our descendants.

    Having a written tradition and keeping the spelling of earlier times instead of changing it to reflect pronunciation does preserve the written form (it is often said that we would have great difficulty speaking with Chaucer or even Shakespeare if they came back or we time-travelled). Being very familiar with older literature is an incentive to write in archaic styles (up to a point). But "stabilizing the language" by artificial means is a hopeless endeavour. It has been shown time and again that language changes because society changes (in particular, because of the rise of new generations), especially if there are important upheavals such as revolutions (even if peaceful) or other large-scale disruptions. The only languages that don't change are those which are not used as a means of normal communication (such as liturgical Latin, or Vedic Sanskrit in the modern period).

  36. Eric Jablow said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 6:07 pm

    I would like to murderize the advertising executive who coined 'moisturize' from 'moisten'.

    Actually, I need to get the right tone. "I'll moiderize the bum!"

  37. bianca steele said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 6:15 pm

    @Mark F: Actually, if you interpret anti-ize-ism as a manifestation of resistance to language change, then it makes sense that people would be more tolerant of its appearance in the sciences, since word-coining is understood to be necessary there.

    I believe you've failed to consider the effects of social class on language use and word choice . . .

  38. Sergei Zhulik said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 6:24 pm


    Your feedback raises some great points.

    Usage patterns have emerged that definitely shade the meanings of statue-like and Hitlerian differently from their respective -esque counterparts. I'm not quite sure, however, that these practices have been sufficiently long-lived or visible enough to affect the words' denotations. A similar situation exists in regards to the adjectives "economic" and "economical." The two have certainly begun to diverge with newly emergent patterns of application; but I'm reluctant to say that that alone has yet effected a significant denotative change. (The foil to this would be where such a pattern is longstanding, as with "classic" and "classical.")

    But, perhaps Hitlerian and Hitleresque–and statue-like and statuesque–really do have independent meanings now. Since we don't have a central language authority like the French, close questions like this have to await unambiguous conensus for resolution.

  39. Luke W. said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 6:29 pm

    Seems like the motivation for using "-ize" has to do with retaining the original noun in an instantly recognizable form within the verb you're trying to make. It makes sense to me that trying to make a verb out of a proper noun would be a relatively uncontroversial case, because there aren't obvious substitutes for proper names. That explains why saying "motivate" rather than "incentivize" isn't the readily-chosen option, because incentive already has a business/economics-related, specialized meaning. Jargonly contexts are kind of like magic spells; arriving at a similar sense is one thing, but it's vastly more effective to use the single word that maps straight to the strictly defined concept at play.

    Or maybe it's because -ize verbs revolve around qualitative transformation of one thing into the semblance of another, the prescriptivism is really expressing an anxiety that every time we're incentivized, we're also being stepfordized, neutralized, or marginalized ourselves by this eerie vocabulary of transformation.

    Can there be different levels or types of productivity in suffixes? Because "-ize" also seems to have an ironic quality to it a lot of the time, particularly when it's attached to proper nouns, where it sort of has the sound of Safire-esque jocular erudition.
    Coinages with -ize seem more premeditated and self-aware and less sincere than something like google/googled/googling. But maybe that's because the suffix has a storied history of (more approved-of) scientificky uses mixed with (more wearying?) advertisingese usages.

  40. marie-lucie said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 6:59 pm

    @Sergei Zhulik


    (you mean marie-lucie)

    Since we don't have a central language authority like the French,

    There have been several threads in which this topic was mentioned. As I wrote in response, people outside of France tend to have a grossly inflated idea of the actual power of the Académie Française, a relic of the 17th century. Very few people take its recommendations into account even in writing, and its influence on the spoken language is pretty much nil. Even though it sometimes publishes a new dictionary (every few decades), there are more useful, more up-to-date dictionaries that people buy.

  41. marie-lucie said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 7:01 pm


    Can there be different levels or types of productivity in suffixes?
    – Absolutely. Right now, -ize is very productive, but -en (as in sweeten from sweet) and -le (as in settle from set) are not.

  42. Sergei Zhulik said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 7:07 pm

    Marie-Lucie (sorry for the former abbeviation),

    I can never pass up an opportunity to throw in a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Académie. :)

  43. Nathan Myers said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 7:14 pm

    I can see a difference between "incentivize : to connect performance on a particular measure to compensation" and "incent: to lead one to respond to an incentivized measure". Your incentivized bonus package incents your sales force. This is not to say that anybody who uses these words daily can be bothered to maintain such a distinction, any more than they can be persuaded to stop repeating "it is what it is" until I want to disembowel them.

    For me, "-esque" implies some degree of horror, or, at minimum, stylization.

    This leads me to wonder about "stylize".

  44. acilius said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 7:24 pm

    1. The discussion here and at the Volokh Conspiracy seems to show two things conclusively. First, that "incentivize" is indeed management jargon, and second, that it is not synonymous with "reward." So here's my second draft of an alternative to "Overall, the workers are incentivized to do well":

    "Management offers workers financial rewards for doing well."

    That seems to capture the full meaning of "incentivize," and leaves its speaker open to questions from anyone who might have concerns about any part of the claim. "Is that offer a binding promise? Which workers are eligible for the offer? What sort of financial rewards? What do you mean by doing well?" The original sentence threatens the potential questioner with a torrent of unintelligible jibber-jabber if s/he doesn't mind her/his place.

    [(myl) Your revision won't work in this particular case, because there's no "management" involved, in any plausible sense. There's just Chris Potts, who wants to get a few linguistic judgments and is willing to pay for them; and amazon.com, which hosts a sort of labor exchange where he can easily connect with some people who are willing to do what he wants, for the price he's willing to pay, and get the work done without further ado. It's the structure of the interaction mediated by the Mechanical Turk system that (implicitly) "offers workers financial rewards for doing well"; Chris's reason for mentioning it was the obvious fear that such internet-mediated transactions might be of low quality.

    More generally, you can always choose to replace a more precise word with a phrase. Thus someone who objected to your term "management jargon" could replace it with "a word peculiar to the usage of people who administer or control businesses". But why? Your problem is that you don't like the word incentivize, not that there are no alternatives to it. No one can make you like this word; but you shouldn't expect to make others avoid it. ]

    2. "But revulsion against the jargon of business or advertising (or literary criticism or the military) is just a simple matter of tribal prejudices, don't you think?"

    Well, perhaps in practice it may be so. If it is only tribal prejudice that disposes us to resist jargon, that would often count as a point in favor of tribal prejudice.

    I do not claim that it is always illegitimate to use specialized language to shut people out of a discussion. On the contrary, I am prepared to argue that there are many cases when the power of jargon should be deployed in just this way. But there's no point in denying that jargon has power. If we recognize a specialized language within a field, we are entrusting power to those who have been initiated into that specialized language. To resist a form of jargon, therefore, is to doubt that those who use that form are worthy of the trust to which they lay claim.

    [(myl) Anyone who feels "shut out of a discussion" because it involves the word "incentivize" is a world-class wimp, don't you think? We're not talking about gaussian copulas, probit analysis, mel-frequency cepstral coefficients, or something else where the meaning of the term requires you to learn something slightly complicated. In this case, all you need to do is to recognize the (pretty obvious) fact that incentivize means to "give an incentive to". If you're not capable of doing that, then you've shut yourself out of the discussion. Out of pique, it seems.

    No one can make you like a word that gets under your skin. But to pretend that you don't like incentivize because you can't understand it seems frankly weird to me. ]

  45. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 7:37 pm

    @ Nathan Myers: For me, "-esque" implies some degree of horror, or, at minimum, stylization.

    I think you must be imagining it. Here's what the Cambridge Grammar has to say (in a chapter written jointly by Laurie Bauer and Rodney Huddleston): "The main productive use of this suffix is to derive adjectives meaning 'in the style of . . .' from personal names: _Disneyesque_, _Pinteresque_. The older pattern with common nouns which gave _picturesque_ (actually adapted from French _pittoresque_), _statuesque_, etc., is found in the occasional recent formation (_robotesque_) but has never been widely used."

  46. bianca steele said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 8:05 pm

    myl, I don't think I understand your point about "jargon" and tribal prejudices. When I look up "jargon" in Wikipedia, the worst synonym I get is "Pidgin." Is that what you mean? I don't see the relevance here.

    [(myl) OED "6. Applied contemptuously to any mode of speech abounding in unfamiliar terms, or peculiar to a particular set of persons, as the language of scholars or philosophers, the terminology of a science or art, or the cant of a class, sect, trade, or profession." MW Collegiate "2: the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group." AHD "3. The specialized or technical language of a trade, profession, or similar group." ]

  47. Mark F. said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 8:35 pm

    marie-lucie: "But "stabilizing the language" by artificial means is a hopeless endeavour.

    Well, it's hopeless to make a language totally stop changing, I agree. What I'm wondering is whether it's possible to exercise a meaningful amount of conscious influence over its rate of change. The conventional wisdom is that even to slow it down (or speed it up, but nobody seems interested in that) is pretty hopeless. But how do we know that?

    Of course, language has continued to change over the years, despite protests, but that doesn't prove that the protests made no difference at all. Or maybe it would have taken strong government effort. My guess is actually that the conventional wisdom is right, but I think it's an empirical question that's very hard to answer.

  48. Nathan Myers said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 8:39 pm

    Simon: Your contemporary examples seem to me to support my point. Perhaps that's inherent in the nature of imitation. However, part of it may be the choice of words we apply the suffix to, that have stuck, such as "grotesque" and "Kafkaesque". I suspect that certain kinds of imitation are more likely to attract the suffix.

  49. Tom said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 8:52 pm

    Nobody has mentioned this alternative:

    The workers are given an incentive to do well.

    For me, this works much better than the -ize verb. I have few problems with -iseing in general; the only coinage that's ever stuck out is AmE "burglarize", which to me has always sounded ridiculously pompous, officious and jargon(esque?) compared to my native BrE "burgle", especially given the subject it describes!

  50. TB said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 9:33 pm

    I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed this rant of Nashe's. I also have a boystrous tendency to compound words.

  51. Harry Campbell said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 9:44 pm

    I would like to murderize the advertising executive who coined 'moisturize' from 'moisten'.

    @Eric Jablow: I imagine moisturize was coined from moisture, or possibly moisturiser, rather than moisten. Surely it's a good thing that we have the means of making the difference between the two very different actions of moistening one's skin and moisturising it? Should we eliminate all such doublets? Christianise and christen? Cattle and chattel? Castle and chateau? Guardian and warden? Strangely, you don't hear people denouncing those.

  52. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 9:48 pm

    Back to whether a special disdain for innovative coinages in business jargon is best explained as mere "tribal prejudice" versus in left-right terms, the complicating factor is that left and right in modern Western societies are to some extent tribal coalitions as well as abstract sets of intellectual positions. I recently reread Robert Nozick's notable rant "Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism," which can be found reprinted in an abridged version here: http://www.cato.org/pubs/policy_report/cpr-20n1-1.html, and was struck by the notion that the rather unflattering caricature of the "wordsmith intellectual" set forth therein (i.e. the adult result of the suck-up teacher's pet social type observable in most high schools) is exactly the sort of personality type who might be expected to delight in prescriptivism and thereby make (generic) himself feel superior to others with greater worldly success by tut-tutting at their failure to conform to fictitious grammatical norms. I realize Nozick's suggestive and intriguing analysis isn't backed with citations to empirical data, but he was after all a Harvard philosophy professor so it wouldn't be fair to expect that of him.

    [(myl) This is certainly another valid dimension: the extent to which knowledge of prescriptive shibboleths is valued (and therefore defended) as cultural capital. I'll read Nozick's essay to see why he thinks this should correlate with leftist political views (if he does think that); but my own unscientific impression is that position on this dimension is largely independent of position on the traditional left-right axis. ]

  53. Nathan Myers said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 10:26 pm

    I suspect our perception of the right-wing prescriptive grammarian is reinforced through self-selection of those who have tried and succeeded in getting paid for it. Left-wing prescriptivists do it for free.

  54. Stuart said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 11:26 pm

    I work in market and social policy research and we never incentivise respondents, but we often talk about the surveys themselves being incentivised. Incentivising surveys used to be considered a no-no, especially in the more statisitcally rigorous social policy surveys, but now it is largely routine. I cannot think of a simpler way to describe the process than to use this unfairly mailgned word.

  55. dr pepper said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 12:45 am

    @Steve Harris

    "Initiativize" for frps doesn't work for me as you suggest "moving to the next player in initiative order". To me it would work better to mean "establishing the initiative order", as in "somethings coming, better initiativize the party".

  56. Justin L. said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 1:21 am

    Seeing this post made me laugh because I just used/created the term "deincentivize" in my political philosophy paper, and I bet my professor won't even question it. Word has never liked the research methods term "operationalize" either.

    I wonder if its critics are thinking in the "use simpler words" vein, such as the "use/utilize" distinction mentioned earlier. "Box/containerize" and "finish/finalize" strike me a similar alternation. I do think Rick S makes a good point above in how versatile "-ize" is being a cause for its demonization (use of -ize intentional).

  57. Rich Rostrom said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 1:30 am

    There is no serious reason for outrage over use of "-ize" except where it is clearly an awkward jargonish formation.

    There are endless highly respectable usages of it:

    militarize, socialize, criticize, rationalize, realize, catechize, organize, categorize, capitalize, italicize, hellenize, romanize.

    Others that have been accepted with no demur: urbanize, industrialize,
    rationalize, sexualize, criminalize, politicize, infantilize, anglicize.

    It's also a long-established casual formation for "practice an activity ending in -y informally": philosophize, botanize, psychologize,

    One other thing I notice: "-ify" and "-ize" sometimes compete, and which one gets used depends on what sounds right: "Americanized", but "Russified"; "motorized", but "electrified".

  58. Picky said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 4:27 am

    We're going to have a hard time of it if we leap up and down for every new word coined by using a live affix – isn't it happening all the time, and, when we're not doing it for real, don't we keep coining just to make jokey words (enbiggeningly?)? On the other hand it would be good to happify staff rather than incentivise them.

  59. red said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 6:29 am

    @ Harry Campbell, and others on 'moisturise' – I agree there's a difference between my skin being moisturised and being moist (or even moistened), and I don't have a problem with the word.

    The further extension of it so that we now have adverts trumpeting '24-hour moisturisation', though, still makes me cringe – and has made me revise my own jocular domestic language to include 'moisturisating' my face with 'moisturisator'.
    Is my aversion rational and based on the meaning of the word? Not really. '24-hour moisture' doesn't mean the same thing – I don't think there exists a synonymous and 'better' single noun that could be substituted. It just, you know, sounds bad, to me, for now. And, yes, probably all the more so because I only encounter it as 'advertising-speak'.

    @HP – It seems possible to me that the second 'handicap' to the acceptance of 'moisturise' you link to, namely gut-level word-aversion of some people to 'moist', might actually have contributed to preference for the longer form. I'm not afflicted personally, but 'moisturiser' seems further in impact from 'moist', somehow, than, say, 'moistener' does – maybe it creeps out sufferers less?

  60. Mark F. said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 7:26 am

    Justin L — Containerize, in its main use, differs more from box than finalize does from finish. The most common use of containerize means to put something in standardized shipping containers, which are big trailer-sized things. That's totally different from boxing something. People also do use containerize more generally, but the word arose in the context of shipping containers.

  61. acilius said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 7:46 am

    @Mark Liberman: "Your problem is that you don't like the word incentivize, not that there are no alternatives to it."

    I don't particularly dislike it, as a matter of fact. Of course it's difficult to keep track of a discussion involving so many interlocutors, so I don't suppose you'll object if I remind you that my first comment pointed out that there is more than one possible reason to dislike "incentivize." One of those possible reasons is that the word is management jargon.

    "Anyone who feels "shut out of a discussion" because it involves the word "incentivize" is a world-class wimp, don't you think? We're not talking about gaussian copulas, probit analysis, mel-frequency cepstral coefficients, or something else where the meaning of the term requires you to learn something slightly complicated."

    Of course, the convention in writing comments on blog threads is to write quickly, revise seldom, and try for flip humor. I suspect that if you were writing in a more leisurely form you would reveal that you know as well as I do that management-speak stems from a body of knowledge that involves some rather complicated ideas.

    Another point you probably understand at least as well as I do is the way shibboleths can work to silence people. A word like "incentivize," dropped into an otherwise innocuous sentence, can indeed intimidate stout hearts. Because management types use the word "incentivize" far more often than does anyone else, when you hear it you are on notice that it probably has some special meaning for them. Since "incentivize" is formed from "incentive," a word which has technical meanings in finance, you suspect that the special meaning is probably something from that extremely technical field. So, challenge a statement about "incentivize," and you may bring down on your head a whole flood of abstruse language. If that happens, your only options will be to pretend that you understand the language of corporate finance and go away unenlightened, or admit that you don't understand it and kiss your prospects of promotion goodbye.

  62. Jorge said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 8:12 am

    @red: if you use a moisturisator, surely you must be moisturisatorising it, not just moisturisating it.

  63. marie-lucie said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

    @jorge: A moisturisator would have to be some kind of instrument (perhaps a spray bottle) used to tranfer the moisturiser to one's skin, said action being "to moisturisate" it. (One more step said to be absolutely necessary to one's daily (or even bi-daily) beauty routine, or rather "skin care regimen").

    @acilius: "kiss your prospects of promotion goodbye"
    It might not be good policy to admit ignorance of an apparently well-known term in the middle of some meetings (although you might not be the only one wondering), but there are times when it is perfectly OK to ask for clarification, such as if you are stuck in conversation with someone from a completely different field from your own. Academics in particular are used to answering questions and most of them will gladly answer yours, sometimes with a lot more detail than you are asking for. (They do that on blogs too!). And remember: ignorance is not a sin. Many of those who would drown you in "a flood of abstruse language" are not necessarily more qualified than you are, otherwise they would try for a simpler way to explain.

  64. Nathan Myers said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 4:51 pm

    Rich Rostrom: Then we have the southern U.S. "speechify".

  65. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 5:34 pm

    Nathan: I think you are looking at a skewed sample. I can match your "Kafkaesque" and "grotesque" with the comparatively innocuous "Schumannesque", "Disneyesque", "romanesque", and "carnivalesque".

  66. acilius said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 5:39 pm

    @marie-lucie: One of the things I most enjoy about academia is the freedom to admit ignorance. No academic is really expected to be up to date on any lingo outside his or her own field, and in a terminology-heavy field like linguistics it's quite all right to be unacquainted with the specialized vocabulary of subfields or schools of thought other than one's own.

    Outside the academy there is often a high cost to admitting ignorance, I have learned. Especially in large organizations, the people who hand out promotions and other desirable things tend to form their impressions of those beneath them very quickly. The person who makes a habit of saying "I don't know much about that. Won't you please teach me?" had better hope for a boss who is a frustrated professor.

    And while you are certainly right when you say that "Many of those who would drown you in "a flood of abstruse language" are not necessarily more qualified than you are, otherwise they would try for a simpler way to explain," a similar statement without the qualifiers would not be true. I myself have on occasion used a bit of abstruse language as a way of making it clear that I was hoping for a discussion among specialists, and I don't think I was wrong to do so. Granted, the people who drifted away when I and my interlocutors did that were not dependent on us for anything, and so it's hardly likely that we intimidated them into silence. We just seemed dull and confusing.

    Can it be all right to use jargon as a tool of intimidation? I would say yes, under some circumstances. In January there was a post here, I believe by Professor Pullum, about policemen who habitually use the stereotyped phrases of their profession, for example the officer "who never got out of a car when he could exit a vehicle." It strikes me that there are many occasions when the police will be fully justified in wanting to keep passersby from wandering through places where they are working, and even more occasions when they will rightly want to discourage the uncoordinated efforts of well-meaning volunteers. If a specialized vocabulary helps to reinforce the sense that the police are experts and that the rest of us should stay out of their way, then I don't think that's entirely a bad thing.

    Of course, there should be limits on the power of the police, and one part of the social action necessary to maintain those limits is skepticism about their jargon. Likewise, corporations need managers, and if a bit of B-School blarney can help a good manager to head off a potential mutiny, that might be okay. The urgent business at hand is to look at particular groups of people who use jargon and who make decisions that affect people who have not been initiated into that jargon and to ask, can this group of people be trusted with the power they have used their jargon to gain? If not, then an interrogation of that jargon is one of the first necessary steps to reining them in.

  67. marie-lucie said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 6:42 pm

    @acilius, Of course, is being in a certain professional position contingent on having mastered certain skills which demand a particular jargon, not knowing the jargon puts you in a perilous position. If you call yourself a linguist and cannot define a basic term like "passive voice", your colleagues will not have much to say for you. But I was thinking more along the lines of not knowing a new buzzword that has just been introduced in a certain context which is not the one you particularly know, or of meeting someone from a different place or profession in an informal context, someone to whom you can say "Tell me, I have seen or heard word X and I am not sure I understand what it means". But I probably gorrwly underestimate the cutthroat competition in some professions (not that there isn't fierce competition in some parts of the academic world).

  68. marie-lucie said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 6:43 pm

    p.s. gorrwly : oops, I mean grossly

  69. marie-lucie said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 6:54 pm

    @acilius, As to "interrogating" the jargon, do you mean the usefulness of the jargon, or its exaggerated use in order to differentiate the sheep from the goats? technical words often arise as shortcuts, but it is true that some jargon seems unnecessary when the same things can be explained more simply in everyday terms and the use of jargon seems (correctly or not) to be intended to hide the truth from the uninitiated, whether through euphemisms, neologisms, or convoluted phrasing.

  70. acilius said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 7:44 pm


    1. I like "gorrwly." It sounds like it should be a town in Wales. Though of course I'd never want to drive away those whose minds don't readily turn to thoughts of Wales.

    2. "As to "interrogating" the jargon, do you mean the usefulness of the jargon, or its exaggerated use in order to differentiate the sheep from the goats?" The former, I think. To be precise, by "interrogating the jargon" I mean looking into whether a particular body of specialized terms is in fact necessary to enable specialists to express ideas that they could not be sure of communicating in more familiar language. I'm thinking of a three-step process. First, interrogate the jargon, that is, figure out how much scope we really have to concede to it; second, make note of when the jargon is used outside that scope as a means of "differentiating the sheep from the goats"; third, ask whether we can trust whoever it is we're looking at with the power to differentiate those particular sheep from those particular goats.

    3. "the use of jargon seems (correctly or not) to be intended to hide the truth from the uninitiated, whether through euphemisms, neologisms, or convoluted phrasing." That's true, but it isn't quite what I'm getting at. At the moment I'm more concerned with the ability to ask the questions than with the truthfulness of the answers. Of course truthfulness is important as well.

  71. Nathan Myers said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 11:02 pm

    Simon: I suppose horror is where you find it.

  72. David Ivory said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 1:57 am

    The -ize spelling to me leaps out of the page in a disconcerting manner… all those hard angles. I prefer the -ise ending.

    It also appears to me to be more consistent. Advertising / Advertise & Civilizing / Civilize. To my ear the sound of the -ize and -ise are the same, so be consistent. The use of Civilize is astoundingly strange to me, Civilization even more so.

    The Macquarie Dictionary used in Australia and New Zealand has standardised on -ise and it is the more common usage downunder.


    In their words…

    "Usage: -ize is the usual spelling in American English. In Britain there is some variety: some publishers standardise on -ize, but others use -ise. Attempts to distinguish -ize in words based on Greek (idolize, monopolize) from -ise in words that have come to English from or through French (realise, moralise) founder on the difficulties of knowing the precise history of many words. Current Australian usage clearly favours consistent use of -ise, a practice which has the advantage of being easy to remember."

    It is a continual frustration that I can't seem to set the spelling preferences to -ise in the various Mac applications I use – even when I set my preferences to Australian… something that grates for a Kiwi.

  73. Stuart said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 3:24 am

    "The Macquarie Dictionary used in Australia and New Zealand".

    I'm in Aotearoa, and I would never have thought of the Macquarie as being used here with any sort of canonical status. The publishers would seem to agree, judging by the large slogan at the bottom of the homepage:

    "Macquarie – by definition Australian" The two Englishes are moving further apart, although on the "ise" vs "ize", they do seem to be in synch.

  74. Adam said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 5:37 am

    @Andrew "This is especially the case when -ize words are buzzwords for certain circles, like accessorize for the fashion-oriented and incentivize for the business/management-oriented."

    It seems to be standard practice to say, "Let's examine the usage of good authors…" and then show that Shakespeare/Donne/Brontë/Gowers split infinitives, used "between" with more than two arguments, etc.

    Surely the "good authors" argument doesn't apply to people who write management books?

  75. acilius said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 7:09 am

    And that's too bad. Some of them have interesting ideas about communication and group behavior. If management gurus wrote even as well as the average academic, those ideas could be useful to people in a variety of fields.

  76. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 8:29 am

    The usage note in the New Zealand Oxford Dictionary (which, let it be said, has nothing to do with the South Island town of Oxford) has this:
    "USAGE Both forms of the suffix (-ise and -ize) have long histories of use in English. The -ise spelling is preferred in New Zealand and Australia, and is obligatory in certain cases: (a) where it forms part of a larger word element, such as -mise (= sending) in compromise, and -prise (= taking) in surprise; and (b) in verbs corresponding to nouns with -s- in the stem, such as advertise and televise. The -ize spelling is preferred in American English and by some British publishing houses but is obligatory in only a small number of cases, e.g. capsize, prize 'value highly'. This dictionary gives both when both are valid but prefers -ise. It does not matter which you prefer so long as you are consistent in your usage."
    (I have not attempted to reproduce the italics for the examples. I used to work for the Auckland branch of Oxford University Press and can report that we had a list of the dozen or so words in which the -ise spelling is obligatory.)

  77. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 4:14 pm

    Interesting to learn that AUS/NZ may be going off on their own on -ise v. -ize preference. Maybe it's worth noting (because perhaps it's non-obvious to a non-American) that all of the obligatory -ise examples given from the N.Z. Oxf. Dict. are also words obligatorily spelled with s rather than z in US English. I don't myself think of them as instances of the same phenomenon as words coined with the morphologically productive -ize suffix (and thus not as "exceptions" to a standard U.S. spelling convention), but maybe that's a misimpression caused by the fact that they're well-established enough that the process by which they were initially formed/coined is not necessarily transparent. Certainly the connection between "advertise" and the relatively little-used verb "advert" (as opposed to the back-formed or clipped noun "advert" for "advertisement" which we don't really use in the U.S.) is pretty opaque semantically and only comes into focus historically/etymologically if I stop and think about it for a while.

  78. marie-lucie said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 8:25 pm

    acilius: If management gurus wrote even as well as the average academic,

    I don't read management gurus, so I can't compare, but I do read academic prose, and not all of it is readable. Mark Liberman and Geoff Pullum and the rest of the LL posters are certainly not "average academics", in my opinion.

  79. Ginger Yellow said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 7:26 am

    I find "incentivise" to be a very useful word. It implies a specific (though not necessarily fully understood) mechanism for influencing behaviour, without judgement. Hence it differs semantically from "encourage" or "reward", although those could often be used where "incentivise" is used.

    "Seeing this post made me laugh because I just used/created the term "deincentivize" in my political philosophy paper, and I bet my professor won't even question it"

    British satire show The Day Today once had a spoof US news report in which the reporter used "de-encouragise".

  80. acilius said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 8:08 am

    @marie-lucie: "I do read academic prose, and not all of it is readable." Sadly true.

    "Mark Liberman and Geoff Pullum and the rest of the LL posters are certainly not "average academics."" Happily true!

  81. Ben said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 4:51 pm

    A question to ML and any other linguists: do you account for cultural animosity in this, and if so, how? After all, at least in the States, there are a lot of people who don't like the corporate culture and they may simply dislike the jargon because it reminds them of that culture. So it may be the learned context rather than any intrinsic qualities of the word that triggers disgust.

    [(myl) If anything, contempt for those who are "in trade" is surely older and more deeply entrenched in Britain. For some general discussion of the role of social prejudice in this area, see "The social psychology of linguistic naming and shaming", 2/27/2007.]

  82. Picky said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 7:52 am


    I would distinguish between a contempt for those in trade – as felt by those either in the old professions or too damn aristocratic to do anything but ride to hounds, that is to say a contempt from above in the dear old British social scale – and a contempt for business leaders and their consultants and gurus and incentivisations, that is to say a contempt from below.

    [(myl) But intellectuals are in the happy position of being able to feel both sorts of contempt simultaneously, don't you think? ]

  83. Picky said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 8:09 am

    The Local Government Association – the British trade body for local councils – has this week issued to councils a list of 200 words it thinks should be avoided in communications with the public. The LGA has the curious idea that if you want people to follow what you are saying it is as well to speak in a language they understand.

    Apparently they don't like stuff like "predictors of beaconicity" or "coterminosity" … or, for heaven's sake, "incentivising" – although they suggest that a good alternative to "incentivising" would be "incentive", which is weird.

  84. More adventures in commenting « Panther Red said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 8:12 am

    […] Language Log, I posted a comment which confused the author of the original post.  That comment kicked off a […]

  85. Picky said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 9:42 am


    Indeed. But perhaps before you apply for citizenship I should warn you that the feeling tends to be reflected from both directions, too (unless you happen to be Lord David Cecil, of course).

  86. James Wimberley said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 4:55 pm

    Before we leave the splendid Nashe, let us file for further polemics his handy insults ploddinger, clumperton, and Zoilist. (For you clumpertons who don't know what the last means, the OED gives: a carping critic, after a Greek exemplar of the genre.)

  87. Diane Chung said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 2:31 pm

    The adding of "holic" on the end of words is a change/trend that has been catching on for awhile now. Words like "shopaholic" and "chocoholic" are no longer considered unusual, but rather a part of our daily vernacular. In fact, these days it seems we can add the affix "holic" to any noun and create a neologism such as "pugaholic" for a person who loves the breed of dog, pugs. In this same manner, I think adding -ize at the end of verbs and nouns is a trend that has been around for awhile, however, is still under great debate. Many of the words mentioned on the post were words that had become so familiar to me that I never once stopped or thought about the origin of these words or whether they were once debated over or not. For instance, words like "personalize," "prioritize," and "tyrannize" were all so normal to me. I feel once people begin using such new words consistently they will begin to catch on and then these words will eventually become so "familiarized" within our speech that we forget that they were ever newly introduced in the first place. In terms of the science words such as "randomize," "pressurize," etc. I feel people do not question these words as much because the majority of people are not science people. If the words sound intelligent enough and science like enough then it is okay because most people will almost never use these words in every day conversation. In addition, I feel language is a tool for communication and therefore is always changing and developing according to the poeple who are using it. Language change and the introduction of new words is inevitable and very necessary. Without change how will our language prosper and incorporate into it new information? Without language change our current language would not be what it is now. The slang that people use and even swear words are part of this language richness and diversity that would not be possible without language change. I feel the adding of -ize or even -holic for that matter is not a cause for disgust. It should be a part of our language that we embrace. It should be a part of our language that amuses us, I mean isn't witnessing language change in action interesting enough?

  88. No nouning! « Arnold Zwicky’s Blog said,

    June 20, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

    […] patterns. For instance, Mark Liberman reported (in "Centuries of disgust and horror", here) on hostility towards some uses of the suffix -ize, as in incentivize. And direct, or zero, […]

  89. Robert said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 11:19 pm

    I think we should step back from the issue at hand, for a moment, and examine the validity of this word's usage, not it's inherent "wrongness" or "rightness".

    [(myl) Um, I think you mean "its", not "it's".]

    Incentive – something that incites or tends to incite to action or greater effort, as a reward offered for increased productivity.

    Meaning of the suffix "ize" – the passive form of the suffix "ize", meaning "to make".

    [(myl) Not always. MW online give several glosses:

    1 a (1) : cause to be or conform to or resemble <systemize> <Americanize> : cause to be formed into <unionize> (2) : subject to a (specified) action <plagiarize> (3) : impregnate or treat or combine with <aluminize> b : treat like <idolize> c : treat according to the method of <bowdlerize>
    2 a : become : become like <crystallize> b : be productive in or of <hypothesize> : engage in a (specified) activity <philosophize> c : adopt or spread the manner of activity or the teaching of <Platonize>

    Incentivized – made an incentive (such as "the appliances were incentivized to hasten the sale of the house").

    [(myl) Or "subjected to the action of an incentive", or "treated according to the method of incentives".]

    Therefore, we can clearly see that the word incentivized is used improperly in this sentence. The sentence "Overall, the workers are incentivized to do well" means "Overall, the workers are made an incentive to do well", which obviously is not the meaning of the sentence. Making a worker into an incentive does not affect their performance!

    [(myl) What we can see clearly, alas, is that you haven't given any useful thought to the analysis of well-established -ize words, like baptize, evangelize, agonize, moralize, mercerize, hospitalize, and so forth. And therefore, your attempted dismissal of incentivize is worthless, since it would also banish all these other words.]

    So, for all the haters out there, rest easy in the knowledge that while incentivized is a valid and correct word, it is used improperly in the aforementioned sentence, and is thus wrong.

    [(myl) Sorry, better luck next time.]

  90. Graeme said,

    August 15, 2009 @ 1:05 am

    A recent Australian Prime Minister, when pushing his neo-conservative agenda around 1987, used the term 'incentivation' to to package and sell his policies.

    (Forgive late posting, I've only just discovered this superlative site).

  91. Incent, Incentivize: Authority Always Wins | Poetry & Contingency said,

    January 18, 2013 @ 11:29 am

    […] times in the wild and also in corporate-language peeving contexts [see a good discussion at LL, "Centuries of Disgust and Horror", plus a related riff on the name of the corporatese translating service called "Unsuck it."].  […]

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