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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1980’s | activese | “coming into one’s own,” “(act of) taking charge”)

Another old word grown large and fat. Always less common than its verb, this noun has been a legal and religious term for hundreds of years. To “empower” meant to convey legal authority or to commission. The king could empower someone, but so could a judge, or a law, or even a regulation issued by a minor functionary somewhere. “Empowerment” meant the law was behind you and you were its agent. It was a formal term, with a touch of ritual about it — it suggested a ceremonial transfer of authority. In religious contexts, it denoted something similar, but since here the source of power is God Almighty, it has a bit more heft and comes closer to “inspiration” than “authorization.” In either case, empowerment came from above, from whatever person, body, or deity is in charge wherever you happen to be.

The changeover began in the 1970’s and blossomed in the 1980’s, when “empowerment” became a political term. Buoyed by civil rights successes of the 1960’s, African-Americans adopted “empowerment” to mean acquiring and keeping economic and political power. At the time, Black Power had been recently much in the news, and there was plenty of astute analysis of how political power is exercised in the U.S. from Douglass, DuBois, Baldwin, Malcolm X, and many others. Other historically oppressed groups — like women, gay people, the disabled, and all the other “minorities” who add up to a huge majority of the population — soon picked up the term, and empowerment came to mean anything from “getting ours” to (more quietly) “not having to take orders from everybody else.” Already very common (sometimes listed as a buzzword) by the early 1990’s, the word became ubiquitous with the Clinton administration’s “empowerment zones,” designated urban neighborhoods in which the government would offer tax breaks and other incentives to encourage employers to move in and create a little prosperity and stability. The Clintonistas did not invent the concept, but they did invent the term, and you still hear it in urban planning circles.

The salient change here is from empowerment as something granted to you from above to something you do for yourself. (To reflect this shift, the verb went from transitive to reflexive.) African-Americans learned long ago that no one was going to do much to help them obtain more political clout or hand them the means to improve their lot as a group. They were coming off solid gains in legal and economic status and it was up to them to maintain them. Implicit in the talk of black people empowering themselves was the realization that even white people who had been sympathetic in the fraught sixties had had enough and no longer had any interest in helping the cause. As Vernon Jordan put it in 1976: “And now, at the 200th birthday of this country, the vast majority of white Americans have reached the point of moral exhaustion. They didn’t have much gas in the tank in the first place, and what little they had, they used up so hurriedly. We’ve come from ‘We Shall Overcome’ to ‘We don’t care.’”

The word has evolved a different meaning in corporatese, where management consultants use it to mean “giving your employees more latitude to make significant decisions.” This usage represents no departure from the traditional sense; it’s the boss letting underlings have a little authority, too. The word has become popular among educators, who used to talk about student empowerment, but now are more likely to talk about parent empowerment: in other words, giving people tools to help them do better. (Educators will always soak up any extra jargon lying around.) The idea of personal empowerment comes up more and more often now. Instead of a group or mass of people gaining collective ability to better themselves through increased earning power or changes in the law, activists and therapists use the word to denote individuals making themselves stronger. As Chelsea Clinton said of newsman Brian Williams, “[he] and his team at NBC place consistent importance on sharing stories of empowerment that in turn, help empower other people and families.” Sometimes “empowerment” is used as little more than a synonym for “learning useful things” (because, presumably, knowledge is power). When applied to individuals, the word still carries a faint sense of helping the downtrodden do better, but that sense has weakened and may disappear.

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