On ‘stakeholders’

1 Mar
The Vampire

Image via Wikipedia

I was writing something for work – and as with any corporate writing, the word ‘stakeholder’ crops up a lot.  This morning, as I was editing someone else’s writing, I instantly changed their ‘stake holder’ (two words) into ‘stakeholder’ (one word) – but then wondered to myself whether I was doing the right thing.

I also got to wondering just what the term means.  It brings up visions, to my mind at least, of vampire hunters, holding large stakes ready to slay a deadly foe.  But this doesn’t (or shouldn’t) make sense in a work context as a stakeholder is someone who is vital to the success of your work.

Are stakeholders instead something to do with a ‘stake’ in the ground?  i.e. people who hold up a stake of the tent you’re building, making them vital to your project as without them the tent would collapse?  This was my primary theory as of 11am this morning.

But no, it turns out that a stakeholder is a gambling term – an independent person who holds the ‘stakes’ or bets while the wager is underway.

And for those who think it’s a modern piece of jargon, perhaps derived from America, it’s actually a British English term that we’ve been using for an incredible 300 years!

The earliest usage is indeed linked directly to gambling: Which will oblige Your Humble Servant Stake Holderappears in 1708.

Another 100 years or so passes before the word is found in the written record with the modern business meaning – someone with an interest in the success of your project.  See this Times entry from 1821: We have ourselves the opinions of respectable men, with whom we have no interest in common, beyond that which belongs to all good subjects of the same Government, and stakeholders in one system of liberty, property, laws, morals, and national prosperity.”

The word has continued with this usage until the modern day – and was particularly loved of New Labour, as we see in the usage by Will Hutton, in The Guardian:  Instead of the winner-take-all economy and polity, the aim should be a *stakeholder economy and polity in which all have an interest.”

So I shall write the word with a lot more reverence in future – but sadly, also with fewer images of vampire hunters.


One Response to “On ‘stakeholders’”

  1. Mbarak December 5, 2012 at 10:26 am #

    Lovely post, enjoyed it alot. I stumbled through it while searching whether “stakeholder” is written in one word or two.

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