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Undertaking to be entrepreneurial

Have you noticed that we're all entrepreneurs now? This observation crystallized not long ago as I was buying some software for my new computer.

As the softwaremakers slice and dice the market and offer multiple versions of the same program, would-be purchasers have to decide whether they can get away with the stripped-down "home" edition, or need more firepower. The answer generally is:You need more firepower. Signs that we have become the "Free Agent Nation" that Daniel H. Pink suggested in his 2001 book can be seen at any computer store.

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A notch up from "home" (sounds warmer than "amateur," doesn't it?) is often a "professional" version. Then there's "small business," which today seems to cover everything from a home-based catering operation to a company about to go public. And one level up from "small business" is often "enterprise." And what an artful term that is.

Enterprise suggests large numbers of users, possibly multiple locations, probably some sort of tech support in-house. It's a signal of scale, in short. But isn't it a more appealing term than "big business" or even "corporate"?

Small business is capitalism with a human face. Small business gets played by Jimmy Stewart in the movies. Big business gets played by Lionel Barrymore.

No wonder the softwaremakers are glad to be able to call their offerings for big- business clients "enterprise-level" products and services. And enterprise, I suspect, is trendy right now because of associations with entrepreneur.

Entrepreneur, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg noted in a piece on National Public Radio a few years ago, is a term that came back into vogue during the Reagan years, when capitalism was being redeemed as an intellectually respectable idea. But capitalist, Dr. Nunberg added, didn't make the same kind of comeback. It retained some of its robber-baron connotations. And so people turned to entrepreneur.

Back on the software shelf, you don't see "small enterprise" as an option. But as Nunberg observed on NPR, there's been a "great leveling of the language of capitalism" – and even self-employed pieceworkers are being cast as "entrepreneurs," even though they may be in that role involuntarily.

Entrepreneur is a word borrowed from French that means "one who undertakes something." Or "an undertaker," we might say, but usually don't. The thing undertaken is the enterprise – almost exactly the same word as in French. An "enterprise" can be almost any kind of new activity, but the word has more than a whiff of adventure about it and a sense of a "quest."

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Entrepreneur and its related words have exact counterparts in German as well as English. And impresario is the Italian version of this same concept.

These terms seem to have bounced around in meaning over the years. Those sent to hold the English crown lands in Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries, for instance, were called "undertakers."

Under the Stuart kings in the 17th century, undertakers were those who "undertook to influence the action of Parliament, esp. with regard to the voting of supplies," as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it. Lobbyists, we would call them today.

Undertaker was also applied to people in the publishing world – today's "editorial assistants," "production editors," or even "publishers."

But by the end of the 17th century, undertaker was being used to refer to those who undertook to bury the dead. Use of the term that way made it less likely to be used elsewhere. No wonder when we talk about enterprising men and women today, we call them "entrepreneurs."

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.