• incentive •
Pronunciation: in-sen-tiv • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: Anything that encourages or motivates a particular kind of behavior, a positive inducement; the carrot, in other words, rather than the stick.
Notes: Incentivize is a new verb created from today's word that first appeared in the late 1960s. Here it seems to be a euphemism for "paying more money to", a connotation that seems to have stuck with this word.
In Play: While it may seem dubious that creativity can be bought, the fact of the matter is, incentives may take forms other than money: "Daisy offered her children dinner at McDonald's as an incentive to help her clean up the house." Incentives must be a positive inducement; however, positivity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder: "The school's offer to allow the weaker chemistry students to use the lab on weekends proved to be less an incentive for improvement than was expected."
Word History: Incentive comes from Late Latin incentivus "that strikes up a tune, that incites", from incinere "to make a sound, strike up". This verb is made up of in-, an intensifier prefix + canere "to sing". The Latin stem can- also underlies the noun, carmen "song, poem" which, after French worked its magic on it, emerged as charme, a word we borrowed less the silent [e]. In the Germanic languages the same root came up as Hahn, still the German word for that fowl singer, the rooster. The feminine of this word, Henne, shares the same ancestor as English hen. The metaphor that gave rise to the sense of "incentive" comes from the sense of setting music in motion, starting it up. Some etymologists think that the meaning may have been influenced by the verb incendere "to set afire". (We hope that our writeup of today's Good Word will incentivize Mary Sanchez to send us more in future.)