Adventures in web searches: At some point this week I pondered, as I’ve often done before, the word tycoon. It always sounded vaguely Oriental to me (like typhoon), and it didn’t seem to have any relations or cognates that would hint at the usual Germanic or Latin origins.
So I did something I never bothered to do before. I looked it up on Wikipedia. And discovered my suspicion was correct.
The word tycoon is derived from the Japanese word taikun (大君), which means “great lord”, and it was used as a title for the shogun. The word entered the English language in 1857 with the return of Commodore Perry to the United States. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln was humorously referred to as the Tycoon by his aides John Nicolay and John Hay. The term spread to the business community, where it has been used ever since.
I find it interesting that the word originally just meant “ruler,” and got applied to a president, but then migrated to the business world. The reason seems obvious. We already had plenty of good words for powerful men and rulers, but we needed a new term for a distinctively American phenomenon – the driving, dynamic, successful businessman, especially of the self-made kind. Tycoon fit the bill, and it had a good sound to it.