Antedating of "Capitalist"

Geoffrey Nunberg nunberg at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Fri Jan 23 18:43:36 UTC 2004

I think this is really another, subtler case of the kind of
sense-shifting that Larry and Fred were talking about in connection
with 'socialist'.

The OED def for 'capitalist' conflates what are really historically
different stages: " One who has accumulated capital; one who has
capital available for employment in financial or industrial
enterprises." But Alain Rey describes these as different senses of
'capitaliste' in French, which is the direct source of the English
'capitalist'. The first sense ("personne riche, en possession d'un
capitale") he dates from 1755; the second, modern sense ("personne
qui possede un capitale et le fait produire"), from 1798.

The OED gives no cite for the modern sense before 1823: "The
poor-rates are the consideration paid by. . .capitalists for having
labour at demand." (The very first OED cite for the word, from 1792,
is also a translation from the French and suggests only the "rich
person" meaning -- "moneyed men, or capitalists.")

Of the cites below, only the first suggests the second sense (or
rather, a distinction between both of them), but it is a direct
translation of the French. There's a similar use in the 1794
translation of Turgot's 1774 Reflections  on the Formation and
Distribution of Wealth in the heading "Subdivisions of the
industrious stipendiary class, in undertaking capitalists and simple
workmen" -- I don't know if this was translated earlier than that.
But it seems to me that Fred's citation from Hamilton is the first
genuinely English (i.e., not in a translation) use of the word in its
modern sense, as the phrase "manufacturing capitalist" makes clear.
As such it antedates the OED not by one year, but by more than 30.

Geoff Nunberg

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>Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>Poster:       "James Knight, MLIS" <jlk at 3GECKOS.NET>
>Subject:      Re: Antedating of "Capitalist"
>There are multiple occurences within each citation below; I can cook up the
>complete list if anyone likes.
>* * *
>Casaux, Charles, marquis de. Thoughts on the mechanism of societies. By the
>Marquis de Casaux, ... London, 1786. 433pp. [add'l cites in this volume]
>p63 ... Now these consumers are of two sorts, viz. the proprietor of lands,
>and the proprietor of money: the latter must also be considered under a
>two-fold point of view, as a capitalist for himself, or as a dependant who
>receives the money from either of the two proprietors.
>Laveaux, J.-Charles (Jean-Charles). The life of Frederick the Second, King
>of Prussia. To which are added, observations, authentic documents, and a
>variety of anecdotes. ... London, 1789. 566pp. Vol. 2 of 2 (2 vols.
>available) [add'l cites in this volume]
>p.49 ... As for the gentleman, the merchant, the capitalist, &c. such men
>must have been absolutely destitute of conduct and of prudence, not to live
>at their ease, in such a country as Silesia, under a government like that
>of Frederick II.
>Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the
>proceedings in certain societies in London relative to that event. ... The
>fourth edition. London, 1790. 367pp. [lots of add'l cites in this volume]
>p.237 ... In every prosperous community something more is produced than
>goes to the immediate support of the producer. This surplus forms the
>income of the landed capitalist.
>[Source: Gale Group, Eighteenth Century Collections Online]
>At 07:34 PM 1/22/04, you wrote:
>>capitalist (OED 1792)
>>1791 Alexander Hamilton _Report of the secretary of the Treasury of the
>>United States, on the subject of manufactures. Presented to the House of
>>Representatives, December 5, 1791_ 22 (Evans Digital Edition)  When the
>>manufacturing capitalist of Europe shall advert to the many important
>>advantages, which have been intimated, in the course of this report, he
>  >cannot but perceive very powerful inducements to a transfer of himself and
>>his capital to the United States.
>>Fred Shapiro
>>Fred R. Shapiro                             Editor
>>Associate Librarian for Collections and     YALE DICTIONARY OF QUOTATIONS
>>    Access and Lecturer in Legal Research     Yale University Press,
>>Yale Law School                             forthcoming
>>e-mail: fred.shapiro at     

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