"What was your latest preneur?"
It's one of the most quoted lines in the 2010 movie The Social Network, asked by a skeptical Stanford student of the man in her dorm bed. As it happens, the tousled gent is the uber-entrepreneur Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake), co-founder of the music-sharing service Napster. But the line scores points for another reason as well: It's proof that -preneur has bid adieu to its entre- associate and become a word part with independent staying power. From Aquapreneur ("commercial innovation in marine biotechnology") to zoopreneur ("an entrepreneur with pets in the office"), there's hardly a business sector that hasn't caught -preneurial fever.
Consider this small sampling of contemporary -preneurs, with dates of earliest documented use in parentheses:
And that's just from the I listings!
How did -preneur — tough to spell, a mouthful to say — become such a popular building block, and what does that popularity tell us about trends in language and business? A little history may be helpful here.
In its original form, the French noun entrepreneur means "one who undertakes or manages," but in English it has never described what we'd call an undertaker — that is, someone who manages a funeral business. "The word first crossed the Channel late 15th c. but did not stay," according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. It returned to England around 1828, when it was used — in italics, to mark it as foreign — to describe the manager of a theatrical production. By the middle of the 19th century it had come to mean any business manager who assumes the risk of profit or loss. It was sometimes used as a synonym for "capitalist."
Throughout decades of big business, big labor, and the dominance of the 9-to-5 lifestyle, entrepreneurs remained on the sidelines. Then, beginning in the 1960s, according to a timeline compiled by Saint Louis University, interest in entrepreneurism began to pick up. The monthly magazine Entrepreneur published its first issue in 1973. (It's still going strong.) Still, no one thought to deconstruct and reassemble the word "entrepreneur" until 1978, when the American businessman Gifford Pinchott III and his wife, Elizabeth Pinchot, co-wrote a paper titled "Intra-Corporate Entrepreneurship." In the seventeenth paragraph, the Pinchots introduced principles they predicted "will prove useful in establishing employee entrepreneurs who work within the corporation." They dubbed this new class of workers "intrapreneurs." In 1985 the Pinchots published their principles in a book, Intrapreneuring: Why You Don't Have to Leave the Corporation to Become an Entrepreneur. Although it's now out of print, the book has influenced a couple of generations of authors and managers.
Gradually, and possibly in imitation of "intrapreneur" — "extrapreneur," anyone? — new compounds began surfacing. Some coinages built on the long-form -trepreneur; others truncated the suffix to -preneur. Aquapreneur has been a U.S. trademark since 1997. Grantrepreneur (someone whose business plan chiefly involves government grants) first appeared in Ireland in 1994, according to Grant Barrett's Double-Tongued Dictionary. Then came the dot-com boom and the rise of startup culture, which spawned dozens of new -preneurs. Mama-preneur, mompreneur, mommypreneur, and (in the UK and Commonwealth countries) mumpreneur all describe mothers who nurture home businesses. Edupreneurs are "educators who want to control their careers." Teacherpreneurs is the title of a 2013 book about "teachers who lead but don't leave." Heropreneurs, the name of an organization that helps former members of the British armed services enter business, combines the ubiquitous "hero" with the equally modish "preneur."
Since 2001, U.S. trademarks have been registered for Christian-preneur, Dentalpreneur, Teenpreneur, Homepreneur, Kitchenpreneur, Media-preneur, Super-preneur, The Passion-preneur, and Message-preneur, among others. In more-informal use you'll find eco-preneur, journopreneur, oeno-trepreneur (New York magazine's description of Gary Vaynerchuk, "the leading grape guru of the Internet"), pastor-preneur (a minister who offers wealth-creation advice), solopreneur, webpreneur, and warrior-preneur (the nom de preneur of San Francisco Bay Area speaker/coach/consultant Ann M. Evanston). I suppose you might call me and my fellow name developers onoma-preneneurs.
You don't even have to be on the side of the angels to merit -preneurial status. Consider the con-trepreneur, a person whose enterprising activities are not strictly legal. (Grant Barrett found what may be the first documented use of the word in a 2004 story datelined Nairobi.) People who profit from the gray market in semi-legal cannabis may be tagged ganja-preneurs, from the Hindi word for marijuana. And you're a wantrepreneur if you talk about starting a business but never get around to making it happen. (The coinage is attributed to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who has used it since 2012, but it's documented in Urban Dictionary from 2008.)
When a word part such as -preneur breaks free from its moorings and becomes independently productive — we might even say enterprising — in this way, it's called a liberated affix, or libfix, a term coined in 2010 by linguist Arnold Zwicky. As with the "kini" in bikini — which was liberated to create new swimwear words such as monokini and tankini — the "-preneur" of "entrepreneur" now stands for something like "business owner," "self-starter," or "go-getter." The invented constructions are quite flexible, as Zwicky noted in a 2010 blog post about -preneurs:
A lot of the examples have a human-referring first element, but the meaning relationships are various. Some are close to simple intersective semantics, though with a twist: a mama-preneur is an entrepreneur who is a mama (well, a mother), but with a special relationship between her motherhood and her entrepreneurial activities. In others, the first element denotes a role (actor or writer, for instance) that someone exploits entrepreneurially. In still other combinations (food-preneur, for instance), the first element denotes something that is the object of the entrepreneurship.
The urge to neologize may be related to the sheer volume of entrepreneurial specialties, as evidenced by the rise of entrepreneur, entrepreneurship, and entrepreneurial in Google's Ngram Viewer, which tracks word usage in millions of published books. The trend is unlikely to reverse any time soon; according to a recent poll by the Kauffman Foundation, two-thirds of employed millennials (people born since 1980) want to start their own businesses.
Not surprisingly, the intense focus on enterprise has generated a small but significant backlash. You may, for example, declare yourself an antipreneur ("a curator of myself, a person"). For several years there was a plucky website — now defunct — called The Untrepreneurist. ("I value fairness above winning, I believe truth above being right.") Gawker called the late Internet activist Aaron Swartz a nontrepreneur: an example of "the new archetypal business creator" who "is not that interested in business at all."
Note, however, that even these refuseniks appropriate the meme and the preneur-morph. So dominant is the entrepreneurial myth — "entrepreneurs are our modern day superheroes," gushed a Forbes writer in 2012 — that we can't refute the standard without resorting to it. Not even artists, writers, and actors are exempt: They've been rebranded as artrepreneurs, authorpreneurs, and actor-preneurs.
And the next -preneur? Well, your guess is as good as mine. But I will make one prediction: When the first person hangs out a shingle for "undertaker-preneur," we'll have come full circle back to linguistic beginnings.
Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books.Click here to read other articles by Nancy Friedman