‘Stakeholder’ stakes a claim

Posted by on April 29, 2013

Google Ngram graph for 'stakeholder' and 'stakeholders'If you had asked me as a teenager what a stakeholder was, I might have guessed “assistant vampire killer”. Why else would you hold a stake, after all? But of course the word is less literal than that – the stake in stakeholder is the degree to which someone is involved in something, financially or otherwise.

Nowadays I often encounter stakeholder; it returns thousands of hits on the Irish Times and Guardian websites, for example, and I see it regularly when editing academic prose and business or non-profit reports. In the US its domain is more confined, appearing in academic contexts about 85% of the time, according to COCA.

Macmillan Dictionary’s definition tags stakeholder as a business word and says it’s either “a person or company that has invested in a business and owns part of it”, or “someone who has an interest in the success of a plan, system, or organization, for example a worker in a company or the parent of a child at a school”. It’s the second, more general sense that’s more familiar in my experience.

Many of the words that commonly modify stakeholders – such as various, different, multiple, diverse, and a range of – convey the breadth of views that have to be taken into account with regard to some organisation or development. Other collocating adjectives, such as key, relevant and major, indicate a hierarchy of involvement: for some stakeholders there is more at stake.

A Google Ngram graph of the word in singular and plural forms shows how recent is its growth in popularity: hardly ever used until the late 1970s, at which point it rose steadily for a decade and then climbed even more rapidly. The Corpus of Historical American English shows a similar curve: no tokens at all from 1800 to 1980, then a sudden surge.

Though its popularity suggests it’s a useful addition to the general vocabulary, stakeholder is not universally liked. In a recent article criticising management jargon, Steven Poole described it as “plump with cheaply bought respect”, and indeed it featured in my parody of corporate language here a couple of years ago, where I mentioned “operation-centric initiatives push[ing] stakeholders’ imagination buttons”.

Our own Michael Rundell has an “enduring hatred” of stakeholder owing to negative initial exposure, as he revealed in a comment on Gill’s post about issues around. The same antipathy – or at any rate ambiguity – in regard to stakeholding may be seen in a profile of British politician David Miliband that says he is “credited, or blamed, for inventing the term ‘stakeholding’.”

So the jury is still out. Does stakeholder push your imagination button, or would you rather drive a stake through it?

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Comments (6)
  • A correspondent has pointed me towards stakeholder theory, which has to do with business ethics, and I was remiss in not referring to this in the post.
    It’s a side to the word not addressed in some definitions, but which I encounter sometimes; it carries the sense of stakeholders being affected by an enterprise without necessarily having an interest in its success. As I said in a post about greenwashing, corporations can be unscrupulous in their behaviour, so relevant stakeholders are obviously not automatically aligned with them.

    Posted by Stan on 30th April, 2013
  • […] ‘Stakeholder’ stakes a claim looks at a word made recently popular: […]

    Posted by Inspiring etymology, and ‘stakeholder’ | Sentence first on 1st May, 2013
  • On BBC Radio 4 this morning Professor Mike McCarthy mentioned – in the context of a discussion about grammatical correctness – something he calls PIF or Public Irritation Factor; the thing that makes some people grind their teeth when someone uses ‘flaunt’ when they mean ‘flout’, or splits an infinitive, or whatever. I think ‘stakeholder’ scores high on the PIF index because of mistrust of the kinds of people who tend to use it and suspicion of the contexts in which it is used.

    Posted by Liz on 2nd May, 2013
  • Liz: That may well be the case. I mentioned the word’s sudden rise in popularity as fuelling antipathy, but as you say (and as Michael suggests) the contexts in which we hear it are another factor to consider. And such attitudes can be contagious, I think: some people tend to collect peeves, so when they encounter other people’s they’re ready and willing to add them to their own list. But stakeholder in the sense of “affected parties” may gradually win people over as it becomes more normalised and familiar.

    Posted by Stan on 2nd May, 2013
  • I stand guilty as charged. I work in the voluntary sector and ‘stakeholder’ is common parlance in meetings, discussions and all to do with funding. We are accountable to our ‘stakeholders’. ‘Stakeholders’ have a vested interest in our progress/sustainability. I resisted the term initially assuming it was only to do with our funders and all things financial. Now I throw it about “like snuff at a wake” to justify decisions made and not made….

    Posted by Helen on 6th June, 2013
  • Helen: Like you I was initially unsure of the word; its sudden ubiquity made me wary. But I’ve been persuaded of its considerable utility. It conveys a particular meaning efficiently, and context normally makes clear whether financial or more general stakeholders are meant.

    Posted by Stan on 6th June, 2013
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