Under Taker - Entrepreneur

Have you ever wondered why we use the French word entrepreneur instead of proper English cultural definition of entrepreneur?

What is the cultural definition of entrepreneurship? The word entrepreneur is derived from the French entreprendre, meaning ‘to take in between’, or ‘to undertake’. English doesn’t really have its own word for entrepreneur – or better said, it once had such a word but tragically lost it.

Is an entrepreneur a funeral director?

The originator of the word is the Irishman living in France Richard Cantillon’s in his book Essai sur la Nature du Commerce en General (1755). When his book, originally written in French, was translated back into his native English, ‘entrepreneur’ was translated as ‘Under Taker’.

Original translation is not our present definition of entrepreneurship
The original word for ‘entrereneur’ was ‘Undertaker’. Cantillon, Richard. Essay on the Nature of Trade in General. Translated by Henry Higgs. Royal Economic Society, 1755. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/cantillon-essai-sur-la-nature-du-commerce-en-general–7.

We use the French word in English because the proper word for entrepreneur, ‘undertaker’ (someone who undertakes, a word used by the original theorists of entrepreneurship), is now used by another profession. Undertakers today are morticians and funeral directors! Such is the ever-changing definition of entrepreneurship.

As a linguist and videographer, I combine those skills to put together a video that covers how the word entrepreneur is used in various world languages. One thing is for sure: The definition of entrepreneurship is cultural, and many languages do not follow the Romance pattern of ‘undertaking’! .

Definitions of Entrepreneurship in World Languages by University Entrepreneurship Scholars from Dr HH Frederick on Vimeo.

Richard Cantillon’s “Essai sur la Nature du Commerce en General” (1755) first gave life to the word entrepreneur. Since then the word is used differently around the world and has acquired culture-specific connotations. In this video we look at the unique way the concept is expressed in small languages such as Irish Gaelic, Maori and Welsh as well as large languages such as Chinese, Japanese and English. The cast of scholars runs in this order: Introduction by Howard Frederick; Dennis Foley, Aboriginal Australian; Whatarangi Winiata, Maori; Dylan Jones-Evan, Welsh; Emer Ni Bhradaigh, Irish Gaelic; Rognavaldur Saemundsson, Icelandic; Erkko Autio, Finnish; Zoltan Acs, Hungarian; Per Davidsson, Swedish; Vyacheslav Dombrovsky, Russian; Liora Katzenstein, Hebrew; Takis Politis, Greek; Jose Ernesto Amoros, Ricardo Hernandez Mogollon, Jorge Jimenez, Antonia Sanin, Spanish; Gloria Talavera, Tagalog; Mona Kassim, Bruneian Malay; Taeyong Yang, Korean; Thanaphol Virasa, Thai; D.M. Semasinghe, Sinhala; Kankesu Jayanthakumaram, Tamil; Yohannes Somawiharja, Bahasa Indonesia; Toru Tanigawa, Japanese; Teng-Kee Tan, Mandarin. >> >> At the very end, there is a wonderful story by Emer Ni Bhradaigh about the life history of Richard Cantillon, the first economist to use the word entrepreneur. .

You can see the confusion in the famous George W. Bush joke below:

US President George W. Bush (who was not known for his mental acuity), as visiting Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair and France’s President Jacques Chirac at a summit meeting in Paris to discuss the economy and, in particular, the decline of the French economy. George Bush leaned over to Tony Blair and whispered, ‘the problem with the French, Tony, is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur like we do’.

Cultural definitions of ‘entrepeneur’

Seriously though, in English and in most Romance languages, the entrepreneur is someone who undertakes to organise, manage and assume the risks of a business. The definition is broadened so that today an entrepreneur is considered to be a social or business innovator or developer who recognises and seizes opportunities; converts those opportunities into workable/marketable ideas; adds value through time, effort, money or skills; assumes the risks of the competitive marketplace to implement these ideas; and realises the rewards from those efforts.[1]  There are some special words too.  For example, an impresario is a theatre entrepreneur.  We say also ‘seniorpreneur’, ‘intrapreneur’, ‘mompreneur’, and many others. 

Not all languages follow the ‘undertaker model’, though. In Malay, usahawan means someone who does a commercial activity at some financial risk. In the Thai language, the word for entrepreneur is pupagongan, which means literally ‘someone who assembles other people together’. In Indonesian, wiraswasta has the signification of ‘courageous private sector’. In the Garinagala language of Australian Aborigines, they use egargal or ‘story-teller’ to mean entrepreneurs.

The Māori language of the Polynesians of New Zealand has two words for entrepreneurship. Ngira tuitui means the ‘needle that binds things together’. The other word is tinihanga a Māui, or the ‘tricks of Māui’. Māui in Polynesian mythology is a demigod and cultural hero famous for his exploits and trickery. Māori admire his entrepreneurial spirit, heroism, altruism and brashness. Take the following story, for example:

Maui and fishhook
Māui and fishhook. tinihanga a Māui, or the ‘tricks of Māui’.

Every day Māui’s brothers went fishing, but they always refused to take Māui with them because they were afraid of his magical tricks. One day, however, Māui hid in their canoe and revealed himself when they were far out to sea. Māui drew out his fishhook made from the magical jawbone of his grandmother, baited it with some blood from his nose, and then lowered it deep down in the ocean … Māui pulled the greatest of all fishes into the boat … and it miraculously turned itself into land that became the islands of New Zealand.[2]

However we say it, the entrepreneur is the aggressive catalyst for change in the world of business. They are independent thinkers who dare to be different in a background of common events. Research reveals that many entrepreneurs have certain characteristics in common, including the ability to consolidate resources, management skills, a desire for autonomy and risk taking. Other characteristics include brashness, competitiveness, goal-oriented behaviour, confidence, opportunistic behaviour, intuitiveness, pragmatism, the ability to learn from mistakes and the ability to employ human relations skills.[3]

Today, we recognize that entrepreneurship is a dynamic process of vision, change and creation. It requires an application of energy and passion towards the creation and implementation of new value-adding ideas and creative solutions. Essential ingredients include the willingness to take calculated risks in terms of time, equity or career; the ability to formulate an effective venture team; the creative skill to marshal needed resources; and, finally, the vision to recognise opportunity where others see chaos, contradiction and confusion.

Cover of Frederick, O'Connor, Kuratko (2019), Entrepreneurship Theory Process Practice (Melbourne: Cengage) Source: Excerpted from Frederick, H. H., A. O’Connor, and D. F. Kuratko. Entrepreneurship Theory Process Practice. 5th Asia-Pacific edition. Melbourne, Australia: Cengage Learning Australia, 2019. https://bit.ly/cengage-etpp.


[1] For a compilation of definitions, see Ronstadt, R. C. (1984). Entrepreneurship.Dover, MA: Lord Publishing, 28; Stevenson, H. H. & Gumpert, D. E. (1985). The heart of entrepreneurship. Harvard Business Review, March/April, 85–94; Barton Cunningham, J. & Lischeron, J. (1991). Defining entrepreneurship. Journal of Small Business Management, January,45–61; Audretsch, D. B. (2003). Entrepreneurship: A survey of the literature. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities; Berglann, H., Moen, E. R., Røed, K. & Skogstrøm, J. F. (2011). Entrepreneurship: Origins and returns. Labour Economics,18(2), 180–93; McMullan, W. E. & Kenworthy, T. P. (2015). Modernizing Schumpeter: Toward a new general theory of entrepreneurship. In Creativity and Entrepreneurial Performance. Springer International Publishing, 57–72.

[2] Craig, R. D. (2004). Handbook of Polynesian mythology. ABC-CLIO, 168.

[3] See Dana, L. P. (2011). World encyclopedia of entrepreneurship. Cheltenham, UK; Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar; Kent, C. A., Sexton, D. L. & Vesper, K. H. (1982). Encyclopedia of entrepreneurship. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall; Montagno, R. V. & Kuratko, D. F. (1986). Perception of entrepreneurial success characteristics.American Journal of Small Business, Winter, 25–32; Begley, T. M. & Boyd, D. P. (1987). Psychological characteristics associated with performance in entrepreneurial firms and smaller businesses. Journal of Business Venturing, Winter,79–91; Kuratko, D. F. (2002).Entrepreneurship. International encyclopedia of business and management (2nd ed.). London: Routledge Publishers, 168–76.

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