The Surprising Evolution Of The Term “Innovation”

To call someone an “innovator” would have been an accusation. Here’s how things changed.

The Surprising Evolution Of The Term “Innovation”

Being on staff at Fast Company, I read permutations of the word “innovator” about 5,000 times a day. Co.Design has its Innovation By Design Awards and Conference. The magazine runs lists of the 50 Most Innovative Companies. It begins to wash over you in that way that saying a word like “cloud” or “toupee” too many times in a row makes you begin to doubt your own pronunciation, and then eventually the entire nature of speech and language. But, you know, it’s still a great word! Innovation!


However, research by Canadian historian Benoît Godin discovered that the reception of an “innovator” hasn’t always been so positive–in fact, it used to be heresy. From a fantastic piece by The Atlantic’s Emma Green:

According to Godin, innovation is the most late-blooming incarnation of previously used terms like imitation and invention. When “novation” first appeared in thirteenth century law texts as a term for renewing contracts, it wasn’t a term for creation–it referred to newness. In the particularly entrenched religious atmosphere of sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, doctrinal innovation was anathema. Some saw this kind of newness as an affiliation with Puritanism, or worse–popery. Godin cites an extreme casefrom 1636, when an English Puritan and former royal official, Henry Burton, began publishing pamphlets advocating against church officials as innovators, levying Proverbs 24:21 as his weapon: “My Sonne, feare thou the Lord, and the King, and meddle not with them that are given to change” (citation Godin’s, emphasis mine). In turn, the pot-stirring Puritan was accused of being the true “innovator” and sentenced to a life in prison and worse–a life without ears.

Apparently innovation slowly began to ride the coattails of “invention,” which became popularized with the Industrial Revolution. Being new became something positive rather than doctrine-crushing. Then tides really turned for innovation around 1939, when Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter tied the word to a new use–where invention was the act of creation, innovation was the act of inventing to drive a business model. The rest is history.

Innovation’s fate reminds me quite a bit of “disruptive,” which may be an even bigger buzzword today. Not so long ago, I was on the phone with a PR rep, and I said that I wanted to write about how her client had been really “disruptive” in the industry. She responded in shock. It took me a few moments to spot the generational gap and did my best to explain that disruptive was a good thing now.

She still didn’t quite buy it. And in retrospect, I can’t recall who her client was and if the piece ever came to be.

Read more here.

[Image: Electricity via Shutterstock]

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.