On the Meaning of Entrepreneur

There has been and is a lot of confusion over the English word entrepreneur. Now, I say English word advisedly, because, though entrepreneur was derived from a French word spelled exactly the same way, a word is not merely a sequence of symbols, but such a sequence in association with a concept or set of concepts, and the English word entrepreneur doesn't have quite the same meaning as the French word.

The French word means contractor or, more generally, one who undertakes.

We didn't need a new word for contractor; it would be contemptible affectation of one sort or of another to introduce a longer French word for such purpose. In fact, there was some attempt to engage in that sort of affectation in the 19th Century, first in the entertainment industry.

But the sequence entrepreneur was reïntroduced to English in the mid-20th Century with the intention of identifying a narrower concept that meritted a word of its own. That concept was of a person who attempts to create a market where one does not exist — offering a new sort of product, or offering a sort of product to those who have not been purchasers of such things.

The entrepreneur is not merely a small business person, nor an active business person, nor an independent contractor, nor some combination of the three. The entrepreneur is an economic explorer, seeking to cultivate new territory — typically with pecuniary profit in mind, but sometimes just for the satisfaction of having brought a market into existence.

Whatever the motivation, it is in the rôle of attempting to create markets that the entrepreneur is the great hero and the entrepreneuse the great heroine of the market economy. And some unconscious sense of that heroism has passed through our society, causing business people aren't such explorers to want to label themselves entrepreneur. The word has become diluted in general use, and many people are using it as if, well, it meant no more than the French word from which it were derived. Economists with a fair understanding of the market process shake their heads in dismay. We need a word for those heroes.

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