|Technology now demonstrates how word usage changed over the last 500 years.|
A continuing challenge for historical fiction is dialogue, i.e. keeping it consistent with the period and not lapsing into present usage. Needless to say, a Gilded Age setting would not be suitable for terminology like “epic fail,” “chill out,” and “ass-kicking.” Instead, you would more likely hear “catastrophic loss,” “calm down,” and “thorough thrashing.” Some of these changes in usage are faddish, but others reflect dynamic cultural shifts. This month’s issue of the Harvard Business Review reveals a few examples of words and phrases that ebbed and flowed in frequency over the 20th century:
Language is a reflection of culture, so the terms we use most tell us a lot about our shifting priorities. To get a sense of how the world of management has evolved, we turned to Google’s Ngram Viewer. This tool charts the frequency of words and phrases in more than 5 million books published from 1500 to 2008. We narrowed our focus to the period beginning in the 20th century.
The most dramatically demonstrated rise to dominance is that of the word “management.” No doubt the hundreds and thousands of textbooks and trade books printed since the Progressive Era have had their effect. Compared, though, to the mild ascendancy and decline of “leadership,” this trend may have broader implications. Let’s see how Merriam-Webster defines the root of each word:
Manage: to have control of (something, such as a business, department, sports team, etc.)
Lead: to guide on a way especially by going in advance
I see two major differences here: management is something that can be left at the office whereas leadership is a trait to be borne 24/7. Secondly, management derives authority from outside of oneself while leadership rests in a person’s own temperament. Granted, today’s managers are often on call way beyond regular business hours, but the principle remains unchanged; their mandate is restricted to the enterprise’s formal operations. It is harder to put down the mantle of leadership because, if exercised well, it sinks into the very marrow of your bones.
This is the 21st century. We want more time off. Leadership demands all your waking hours. We have a right to privacy. If one such right actually exists, leaders forgo it, recognizing that they set an example in every area of life. Successful management requires cleverness, quick-wittedness and thinking outside the box. Optimal leadership requires integrity, courage and thinking beyond the bottom line. In the 21st century, principled leadership is extolled, flattered and revered. Management, however, and its effective execution seem to get most of the ink.
It may well be that leadership carries moral connotations with which we are uncomfortable. Management, on the other hand, is well-suited to technocrats and efficiency experts who solve knotty problems and make things run more smoothly. Our political rhetoric reflects the shift from exemplifying and extolling virtues to expanding and improving national output. The president of the United States, although invested with “executive” authority per the Constitution, was known for the first century of America’s life as the “chief magistrate.” Only later, as the size and scope of government grew, was the term “chief executive” adopted. Again, from Merriam-Webster:
Magistrate: an official entrusted with administration of the laws: as a : a principal official exercising governmental powers over a major political unit (as a nation)
Executive: a person who manages or directs other people in a company or organization
We go from a limited mandate to a much broader one as the terms evolve and replace one another. Are there ominous implications here? Perhaps born-again libertarians like me are too quick to see tyranny lurking around every clause, phrase and sentence. Still, history does reveal a certain political enthalpy that accompanies ethical entropy. As common notions of morality give way to individual ones, government will grow stronger to prevent anarchy, e.g. the rise of Napoleon from the wreckage of the French Revolution. Danger must be minimized; order, imposed; resources distributed according to a fixed regime.
This morphing from republican virtue to the procedural republic (hat tip to Michael Sandel of Harvard University) is mirrored by our changing word choices. Is it possible that by consciously amending the words we use we can thereby stave off tyranny? I would like to think so.