Sunday, March 12, 2006

English and French Speakers - Divided by Uncommon Meanings to Words

The Economist carries an article (unsigned as per policy): “Searching for the invisible man” (9 March). It is about entrepreneurs, but also carries the almost obligatory mockery of President George W Bush:

“The French, according to George Bush, have no word for them, economic theory has surprisingly little room for them, and it is a mystery why anyone would choose to be one of them. Entrepreneurs are the leading men of capitalism, the venturesome protagonists who move the plot forward. But economic theory gives them few if any lines to read.”

Strictly speaking, perhaps George Bush was correct. The word entrepreneur is French (cue to laugh wildly), however, the French use of the word is not the same as the French word is used in English. My French neighbours regularly refer to individuals, when asked about what they do, as ‘entrepreneurs. At first I was impressed with the number of entrepreneurs in the French village where I live for much of the year. Truly a good sign for the future of France? However, as these always turned out to be small tradesmen, builders, mechanics, contractors and such like, I soon realised that the French used entrepreneur to describe anybody owning a small to medium sized business. It did not mean a risk-taking innovator, in the sense used in Scotland (or meant apparently by President Bush in the USA?).

“Translated literally, entrepreneur means one who undertakes—one of life's doers. To start a firm you need gumption, and to succeed you need an eye for a gap in the market. That in turn demands alertness, as Israel Kirzner, of New York University (NYU), has pointed out. But it does not always demand much originality or power of invention. The fresh-born firm may be a mere clone of another one in a neighbouring town.”

The Economist goes some way to understanding this point (then why mock at Bush for making the same point?): an ‘undertaker’, a word used several times by Smith in “Wealth of Nations”, is a meaning spoken by French people to mean exactly what French speakers mean by the word entrepreneur. All the people referred to as ‘entrepreneurs’ in my locality in France are certainly ‘clones’ of smaller business people in nearby villages. They certainly do not mean inventors and innovators.

“Most innovations are merely incremental improvements on something that already exists: a slightly better mousetrap, as Mr Baumol puts it.”

Smith makes this point in his discussion in “Wealth of Nations” in Book I, except he said that small inventions and improvements were usually made by the labourers (even young men under 20), who worked what passed for ‘machines’, including ‘fire engines’ (early steam engines) in illustration of the division of labour.

A rare few represent discontinuous breakthroughs, such as the incandescent lamp, alternating electric current or the jet engine. All of the above, according to Frederic Scherer, professor emeritus at Harvard, were introduced not by the regimented R&D of established corporations, but by scrappy new firms, twin-born with the invention itself. Mr Baumol ventures that most breakthroughs arise this way—the offspring of independent minds not incumbent companies. He has two explanations for this. First, radical innovation is the only kind lone entrepreneurs can do; and, second, they are the only ones who want to do it.”

Professor Frederic Scherer is an economist known to all who studied defence economics in the 1960s-70s; his field work was with industrial firms and his summaries carry much authority. The fact that Professor Baumol (btw: who is ‘Mr’ Baumol?) picks up on Professor Scherer’s suggestion is an authoritative confirmation of it.

This brings the English language use of ‘entrepreneur’ into clear distinction with the way the same word is used in French. President Bush was right, despite the mocking.

Many French words have different meanings to the same word and spelling English and confusing them would be embarrassing: for example, ‘demande’ in French means ‘ask’, not ‘demand’! as in English; ‘d'occasion’ in French means ‘second-hand’ (as in cars), not an ‘event’ as in time in English; ‘pain’ means bread in French not something you suffer physically; and, controversially, ‘European Competition Laws’ in French means something obeyed if it is convenient to French National Interests, whereas in English it means ‘mandatory under pain of legal duress’.


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