Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Warning: word rant ahead

My first call this morning, as it should be every morning, was to the research department of the Oxford English Dictionary. They confirmed what some of you think about me from time to time: I am dead wrong. You see, I have been assuming that the word incentivize (or, to the Brits, incentivise) is not in fact a word. I have been correcting people in crisp suits for years, my conviction so strong they never question it.

Well, I'm wrong. The OED added the word in 2003, citing, among other things, "the prevailing corporate usage" of the times.

They haven't done a new printing of the OED since 1989, but when they do, they should put a big, fat asterisk around the word. Just because enough marketing airheads are brutalising the language, doesn't mean it should be acknowledged by Oxford linguists, I wanted to scream. But the woman on the other end of the line was so helpful, so erudite. No doubt, she didn't want some agitated columnist on deadline, who was now going to have to make a major edit to his column, shouting down the phone at her. Incredulous, I asked her who first coined this phrase, assuming it originated in some Madison Avenue cubicle. "The Guardian, 1968", she told me. The English are responsible for this abomination of a word?, I gasped. Yes, she said, not caring for my choice of words.

I should have guessed as much. Words, these days, have me tied in knots. I admire the flexibility of English, its ability to transform inanimate nouns into bold actions. Don't believe me? Google it! Such a convention would be impossible in Italian. Nouns are nouns. Verbs are verbs. Never the twain shall meet, goes the thinking here.

Case in point: I've mentioned here before how Xtina and I were attacked one night by egg-hurling punks just outside our apartment. In a drippy, yolky daze, I informed a perhaps more dazed Xtina, "Darling, we've been egged."

"Egged?!?", she wanted to know. "Ouvati! Siamo ouavati!" The fact the yolk was hardening on my jacket, my ego was seriously bruised, meant nothing. Forget that Roman nightlife had become a lawless, egg-throwing jungle. She wanted to know how Anglo Saxons could allow for such reckless syntax. I defended the language, flicking egg shells off my shoulders. It's the flexibility of English that shows its durability, I said testily.

But now I'm not so sure. Are we being too flexible with the English language? I don't mind the inclusion of clever rap lyrics into the daily lexicon, but I don't think the good people at the OED should officially recognize it as words. Just because a lot of well-paid people misinterpret word usage on a daily basis, should we make allowances for this by simply giving in and writing it into the dictionary? Forget correcting them.

The Italians would never do this, but then there's a reason why the dominance of the Latin languages are forever on the wane. Somewhere between Italian inflexibility and Anglo Saxon permissiveness, lies the answer. We can start by boycotting that damn "incentivize". And, please, don't throw eggs.


Adam said...

I'll have you know the evil corporate overlords have a dastardly new plot underway. Not content with "incentivize" they are now using the bastardized "incent" as a verb, as in "We have to find a way to incent users to generate their own content."

Bernhard Warner said...

say it with me, people:


Anonymous said...

Thank you for "legitimizing" my long-felt anger at this trend. My current job involves writing training designs for gov't programs. In this work, I am at war with those who would have me "concretize" information and "strategize" how to resolve problems. At first, I bristled at the thought of "popcorning out answers" from training participants; however, I'm less opposed to "popcorn" as a verb than I am "strategy" and "concrete." Popcorn is at least a nice metaphor.

That said, there was an excellent example in today's NY Times of the ONE noun I don't mind being "verbized" (maybe because I'm a self-loathing American and feel the dirty process of changing nouns into verbs is best represented by the "Americanization" of the world and its foremost language):

Federal investigators said Mr. Cho — a South Korean immigrant who Americanized his name and preferred to be known as Seung Cho — left behind a note that they described as a lengthy, rambling and bitter list of complaints...