Parsing the Word Entrepreneur

“The problem with the French is that they have no word for entrepreneur”.

That commonly heard but falsely attributed Bush-ism is the starting point for an NPR lexical look at the word “entrepreneur”. The word didn’t really come into its own, it turns out, until the 1950s, and more so in the 1980s. It was, NPR’s commentator argues, capitalism with the role of capitalist played by Jeff Bridges rathern than Lionel Barrymore.  

More seriously, he calls it a levelling of the language of capitalism. But, he says, it is darker than that, with the wider-than-ever usage of the word entrepreneur as an example of job-title inflation, with entrepreneur really being, in many of its applications — like freelance writing and work-at-home healthcare — really being just a twist on more negative job descriptors like “piece-work”.

Is this view right? Well, he has a point, and the word “entrepreneur” is used much too freely, both within the academy and in political chatter. Many of those people are better described as social entrepreneurs — they do it because the like the frisson — or unwilling entrepreneurs — they do it because they have no other choice.

To the extent that this piece is a call to reclaim the word “entrepreneur” for entrepreneurs, however, I’m in proximate agreement.