Insinuendo: on words


The last tycoon

In mid-1860, a party of 72 Japanese “ambassadors” arrived in New York to observe on behalf of their Shogun (Emperor) the American way of life. In November of that year, Abraham Lincoln won a landslide presidential election. Lincoln was nicknamed “Tycoon” by his closest aides, a word wrought from the visiting men in inscrutable silks who described their Shogun as a “taikun” — meaning “great lord”. Lincoln’s men used it to describe not just their President’s great wisdom but his inscrutability — considered even then a particular Asian characteristic.

Six months later, America tore itself apart in a four-year long civil war that killed 620 000 soldiers and countless civilians.

The word has an earlier usage in English. In 1857, Townsend Harris, the first American Consul-General in Japan wrote in his diary that the correct term for “Shogun” — spelt by him as “Ziogoon” — was “taikun”.

It was not until 1926 that it was used to describe a “businessman of exceptional wealth, power and influence” when the London Times referred to the rags-to-riches businessman and one-time barber Fred W Fitch as a “rich hair-tonic tycoon”. Fitch was exceptionally wealthy and hugely influential. He helped found the Des Moines College of Pharmacy and in 1949 donated $100 000 (approximately $1-m in today’s value) to Drake University to construct the Fitch Hall of Pharmacy. Significantly, Fitch started small and grew big.

From then on the word “tycoon” went on to lose much of its profane greatness. It soared to some height with the publication in 1941 of Scott Fitzgerald’s posthumous novel, The Last Tycoon. And then, a few years later, in 1947, Quant, a character in WH Auden’s poem, ‘The Age of Anxiety’, spoke of “With diamonds to offer/A cleaned tycoon in a cooled office…”.

But few people seem to read either Fitzgerald or Auden these days, which may explain why the word has lost most, if not all, vestige of significance. It’s become as popular as a headliner in our tabloids and even some broadsheet papers. There was a period during prohibition in the USA when it was occassionally used to describe the godfathers of organised crime, but in the main, along with mogul (another imported word) and magnate (from the Latin “great”), it correctly referred to enormously successful businesspeople.

Some months ago, a Sunday paper referred to convicted fraudster Kenny Kunene as a “tycoon”. Rather like describing a pimp as a gynaecologist. A tycoon, as the 1926 citation shows, referred to people who, like Fitch or Cornelius Vanderbilt, turned “small businesses into gigantic ones”. Kunene, along with a convicted bank robber, Gayton Mckenzie, took control of Johannesburg-listed Central Rand Gold in 2010. (“How?” is another story.) Within a few years he had reduced it to nothing. When the company listed, it sold 58-million shares at a price of £1.25 The number of shares has risen to 1.6-billion, “ranking the stock as one of the most dilutive in modern global history”, as one commentator put it. At just over a penny a share, this represents a loss of 99% for the initial investors. Apparently, CRG’s mining activities have stopped.

Kunene is best (meaning politely) described as a philoplutary — a lover of wealth — not a tycoon — a creator of wealth.

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