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Review | ‘Keywords’

John Patrick Leary Traces Meaning/Usage of Words

Photo: Courtesy‘The New Language of Capitalism’

Innovator. Curator. Entrepreneur. Thought Leader. If you work in a company or organization larger than a handful of people — or regularly read the business press — you have seen these words, and others, many times. In Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism, John Patrick Leary, a professor of English at Detroit’s Wayne State University, traces the meaning as well as the past and current usage of nearly four dozen such words that have infiltrated every corner of our lives. 

Why does this matter, you might ask? Because, as Leary writes, “Language is not merely a passive reflection of things as they are, but also a tool for imagining and making things as they could be.” Not surprisingly, Leary is a passionate believer that language matters because it shapes, colors, and informs our perception of society. The keywords Leary dissects are so because they unlock something hidden about a particular worldview. Keywords drape winner-take-all capitalism in the garb of morality and normalcy, but they also erase or obfuscate any notion of collective action or shared social responsibility. 

The extent to which the language of the market has appropriated so many aspects of our lives is both fascinating and troubling. Because it’s so ubiquitous we use this language without questioning its deeper meaning, some of which, as Leary illustrates, is less than benign. 

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