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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

headhunter

(1980’s | businese | “recruiter,” “matchmaker”)

Forget Borneo. Headhunters today thrive in the corporate jungle, a much less straightforward place. The businese meaning crept into the mainstream press in the mid-seventies, when the word already had two definitions: the familiar anthropological, and the athletic. In the latter context, “headhunter” denoted a player who deliberately tried to hurt opposing players — especially a pitcher who throws at batters’ heads or a defensive player in football who resorts to dirty tricks. These usages have not disappeared, although the term sounds decidedly archaic now in an anthropological setting. The first corporate use I found anywhere was a book published by Alan J. Cox, “Confessions of a Corporate Headhunter” (Trident Press, 1973) — I suspect the word was already pretty well established in business jargon by then. “Headhunter” began to show up in redoubts of conventional wisdom like the Washington Post and Newsweek by the end of the decade, sometimes in bashful quotation marks, and bearing the usual wobbly word division — two words, hyphenated, or one — characteristic of compounds. The term has undergone one significant change in the last forty years: now, it applies as readily to a firm as to an individual. Back then, executive search firms were not known as “headhunters,” but today it’s quite common.

Headhunters search for attractive candidates for high-level positions in corporations, law firms, and government, often by prying them away from other companies, but that’s all part of the game. The catalyst who delivers just the right power player, or the pirate who makes off with our best talent. One supposes that “headhunter” in this sense is simply “head [man]” + “hunter,” but some of the stronger animus used in referring to South Pacific islanders or malicious athletes may rub off. The use of the adjective in Cox’s book title brings to mind a later phrase, “corporate raider,” and the implicit violence of “headhunter” is perpetuated there as well.

More recently, dating services have begun to use the expression to refer to what we might once have called “relationship counselors,” or, more innocently, “yentas” — real, live people who sift through thousands of profiles to find the exact custom-made helpmeet for your spousal needs. Any computer can spit out some compatible names, but a romantic headhunter who really knows his or her business makes all the difference. The dating game can be quite predatory, so the use of the term seems as appropriate here as in a business context.

Why isn’t the one who finds your new boss a “bounty hunter”? It’s just as plausible metaphorically, and just as violent. But what’s odd about “headhunter” is its mildness in everyday usage; it does not have rapacious connotations, in spite of its lurid roots. Such a suggestive term, such a banal occupation. They’re not painted cannibals or even defensive backs spearing wide receivers; they sit in an office all day and go home to their spouses at night. Somehow all the danger has leached out of this word, and it’s become just one more cog in the corporate machine. Bounty hunter? In your dreams. How about switchboard operator, travel agent, psychopomp?

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