The useful word “incentive” comes into English from (appropriately enough) the most alluring origins. Its Latin root, incinere, past participle incentus, means “to intone,” or “to sing to”-suggesting that the lilt of a lover’s serenade (no doubt under a balcony, surely by moonlight) may have been Western civilization’s first intentional incentive. Would that all incentives had remained so sweet.

The word has come a long way from the twilit Veronese cobblestones, nowadays turning up most often amid the tedium of construction contracts, economics texts, and labor negotiations. But then, many things that began in the moonlight end up losing their luster by and by. We would have wasted no sympathy on “incentive” on those grounds, had this charming little word not been kidnapped, abused, and sold into slavery in the past ten years, forced to play a verb and do the work of (far less tuneful) words like “encourage,” “induce,” and “pay.”

Lately, you will find this erstwhile troubadour either painted in the cheesy makeup of INCENTIVIZE or stripped almost naked and forced to go about as INCENT. Both words now turn up everywhere among the writings of social scientists, public officials, and the scribes of philanthropy.

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