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.
Post author Mark Liberman also observes:
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 [a commenter critical of Liberman’s use of incentivize] 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.)
The post drew many comments, including this one:
While I dislike “incentivize”, I dislike even more the infinitive, “to incent”, eg. “A bonus will incent the workers to be more productive”.
I too prefer “incentivize,” a word that seems indispensable to anyone writing about intellectual property. “Incented” makes me think of air fresheners.