We hereby salute whatever 19th-century scholars of business and management first came up with this sexy new word for the heroic swashbuckling capitalist-the adventurer who thinks big and lives dangerously, who wagers all on a great commercial dream. Their ambitious mot exotique, drawn from the French word for “undertake” (entreprendre) does not, in English, mean “undertaker” (more’s the pity, perhaps). It came out as the much dandier ENTREPRENEUR. In some circles, you get extra points for pronouncing the r’s as if you were dislodging fish bones from the back of your throat.
In the mid-1800s, when the word’s modern meaning made its debut (referring, at first, to the proprietor of a music hall or gambling establishment), it offered a colorful term for colorful people, a nice ?t of form to function. The original idea was indisputably so out-of-the-ordinary and specific as to deserve its own word. And when you want something colorful, there’s really no source like the French. (Even a fleeting acquaintance with the 1960s sit-com The Addams Family will call to mind the explosively libidinous effect of French on the leisure classes. ENTREPRENEUR is, come to think of it, really the perfect word for a capitalist Gomez Addams.)
So what is this gorgeously ruffled word doing lurking about in philanthropy? It sailed over from Wall Street on an immigrant ship loaded with other business mumbo-jumbo. Just like capital and venture and return, the word ENTREPRENEUR has lately acquired the dignifying adjective SOCIAL (q.v.) and set about Doing Good. Result: A word once specially designed to describe Donald Trump or Ted Turner has lately been applied with equal verve to the founders of peace movements and soup kitchens.
By this route, the visionaries who inspire selflessness in others-so long as they go about it in any remotely unusual way-are now (get ready with the fish bones) social entrepreneurs. They are also civic entrepreneurs, public entrepreneurs, and, more rarely, philanthropic entrepreneurs. By recent standards, any effective leader who can finish the fiscal year on the safer side of ruin is promptly anointed an “entrepreneur,” and takes a place, however uncomfortably, alongside the Rockefellers, the Morgans, and the Fords.
To be fair: The watering down of ENTREPRENEUR is not solely an offense of the nonprofit establishment. Even before the word swamped the immune system of the philanthropic world, it had already overrun the business libraries. “Like enterprise,” says the Bloomsbury Good Word Guide (1997), “the noun ENTREPRENEUR is losing its traditional connotations of risk and initiative and is indiscriminately applied to any person who becomes self-employed or sets up a new small business.” That presumably means that, somewhere in the entrepreneurial family portrait between Rupert Murdoch and Archbishop Tutu, if I look closely enough, I should be able to spot my dry-cleaner.