What’s the origin of the word ‘tycoon’?

Reading time: Just over 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: tycoon. 

Right now I’m reading the non-fiction book, In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides. (Thanks so much to the reader who recommended it.) It tells the story of the U.S.S. Jeannette — an 1879 navel expedition seeking the North Pole, funded by the wealthy owner of the New York Herald newspaper, James Gordon Bennett.

The book has given me my word of the week —tycoon — not because it was new to me but because I decided to investigate its etymology. Here is how the author used it:

Jeannette had come as well, and traveling with her—or as close as Victorian courthip protocols would allow— was her beau, Isaac Bell, a wealthy New York cotton broker and investment tycoon.

As you will know already, a tycoon is a a wealthy, powerful person in business or industry. Names that may spring to your mind likely include: Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, John Rockefeller and Howard Hughes.

But when I investigated the origin of the term, imagine my shock to learn that it is Japanese…

The Japanese word is taikun and it means “great lord or prince,” a title for the shogun of Japan. Apparently, his supporters used it when addressing foreigners, in an effort to communicate the importance of the shogun — a hereditary commander-in-chief in feudal Japan. (Because of the military power concentrated in his hands and the consequent weakness of the nominal head of state — the mikado or emperor — the shogun was generally the real ruler of the country until feudalism was abolished in 1867.)

The meaning of the word was first noted as  “an important person” in 1861, in reference to U.S. president Abraham Lincoln (in the diary of his secretary, John Hay). It specifically came to mean “a wealthy and powerful businessman” post-World War I.

The picture, above, shows Minamoto no Yoritomo, the first shogun (1192–1199) of the Kamakura shogunate.



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