WORDS : TYCOON

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The Independent Online
JOURNALISTS looking for an elegant variant of "Robert Maxwell" know where to find one. "Tycoon's sons accused of huge pensions fraud" said a Daily Express splash. Elsewhere he was also "the media tycoon" (Times and Independent) and "the publishing tycoon" (Times). I spotted a "media mogul" and a "media magnate" but tycoon is the natural favourite. Doesn't it carry a vaguely defined mixture of envy and dislike? (The constant use of the word to describe Maxwell hasn't exactly helped it.)

However, the original tycoons weren't businessmen - they were Japanese shoguns, or commanders-in-chief. Early in the 17th century the shogun Tokugawa Iyeyasu, that benevolent despot, took over pretty well all the Mikado's secular powers and in 1635 it was decreed that shoguns should be officially addressed as taikun, or sovereign lord. Americans were talking about "tycoons" 200 or so years later to mean any sort of bigwig. I don't know when the word became more or less restricted to financial tycoons, but it must have been hardly 60 years ago. The hero of Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, for example, wasn't a moneybags. He was a film-maker, Monroe Stahr, and Fitzgerald was writing that novel in 1940.

In about 1967 the pressure group Aims of Industry, a proponent of minimal government, produced a pamphlet subtitled Wise Parent or Tycoon? in which it complained about the "basic and dangerous error that there is any resemblance between managing a country and managing a business": in other words, politicians shouldn't try to behave like tycoons. But the original tycoons were politicians. Anyway, nowadays we find our taikuns in the City rather than in Parliament. You can make what you like of that.

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