Friday, December 20, 2013

"Growing a business" for (at least) 35 years

Since my esteemed colleague John McIntyre has registered (mildly, in a footnote) an aversion to "growing a business," I thought I'd dig up my previous discussion of the usage. If I'm more tolerant of it than he, it must be because I heard it much earlier, thanks to a stint at a business magazine. Here's what I wrote in the Boston Globe on Dec. 27, 1998, in a Word column on bugbears we should forget about:
Growing pains. Some readers are alarmed by the spread of the transitive grow beyond its agricultural domain. Growing corn and tomatoes is all very well, say Alan Rechel of Belmont [Mass.] and Tom Halsted of Manchester [Mass.], but when did growing a business and growing the economy become part of the language? I shared their pain when I first saw grow used this way (in Inc. magazine, 20 years ago), but I haven't found any good arguments against it, aside from the taint of jargon -- and that will fade with time and use. After all, if you can grow a beard or a crystal, why not a business?
In fact, this sense existed long ago, according to the OED, which gives an example (here modernized) from 1481: "When David had reigned seven years in Hebron, he grew and amended much this city."* So let's look on the bright side: We're not gaining a neologism, we're reclaiming a bit of our linguistic heritage.

*Originally: "Whan dauid had regned vii. yere in Ebron he grewe [Fr. creut] and amended moche this cyte [Jerusalem]." The quote is from Caxton's translation of "Godeffroy of Boloyne, or the Siege and Conqueste of Jerusalem," a 12th-century French account of the first Crusade.


John Cowan said...

Chicken growing is perhaps an important intermediate stage: traditionally only plants were grown, transitively, but after the animals, the abstractions were an easy step.

empty said...

When did it become linguistically possible to grow wings, or a beard?

Bryan M. White said...

It bothers me when I hear someone say something like, "It grows the brand." Seems like trendy, slick, corporate talk, and it just doesn't sound right at all. Not only is the verb transitive, but no one is even taking direct responsibility for the growing!

If we're going to move away from the realm of something growing on its own, someone else should at least be there to do the growing. We shouldn't just leave it with an advertising strategy for a babysitter. That's no way to raise a brand! ;D

Warsaw Will said...

In answer to empty, Ngram shows both expressions beginning to take off in the second half of the nineteenth century. The earliest reference I can find is in Thomas Brooksbank's 1854 translation of Dante's Inferno, which includes the phrase "Our oars grew wings to speed our headstrong flight", a somewhat free translation of Dante's original "de’ remi facemmo ali".

The Book of Ballads, by Sir Theodore Martin, ‎William Edmondstoune Aytoun, ‎Alfred Crowquill and published in 1804, has these lines:

"Then he hired an airy garret Near her dwelling-place ; Grew a beard of fiercest carrot, Never washed his face"

All at Google Books.

Keith Brian Johnson said...

I never thought "grow" meant "make larger." It might mean "cultivate"--hence, one might "grow corn" or even "grow a crystal." And it might mean "develop a new body part"--hence, one might "grow a beard" or even "grow a tumor" (although we usually think of such an involuntary case's being an instance of the body's growing something rather than of the person's growing it). But "make larger"? "Expand"? That doesn't really seem to be what "grow" means, so Bill Clinton's "grow the economy" always grated on my ears.