Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Incentive: An Incendiary Word?

I’m having to adjust the Word History of a recent Good Word, incentive, as a result of a note from Monika Freund of Germany. My word history went thus:

“Incentive comes from Late Latin incentivus “singing a tune, inciting”, from incinere “to sound off”. 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.”

Monika wrote: “I don’t think incentive has anything to do with incincere “to sing”. It must be derived from incendere, which means “to set on fire to, to encourage”. In German you also say “Man feuert jemanden an “You set someone on fire (with a special treat etc).” Indeed, in English we say “to set a fire under him/her” in the sense of incentivizing them.

I should have mentioned that the meaning of the word was probably influenced by incendere “to set afire” but my etymology is correct. The English word comes from Latin incentivus “setting to music”; the correlate adjective from incendere is incensivus, also borrowed by English as insensive “fiery, tending to inflame, inciting”.

The metaphor in the case of incentive was by analogy of setting passive words to music to make them move. However, many etymologists do believe the shift in meaning was influenced by the sense of incendere, a note I should have added to my Word History.

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