In August 2011, when the city of London was on fire, media reports dwelt on the riotous behaviour of “the protesters". Not everyone was happy with the mob being called protesters. That word seemed to give them some degree of recognition as people who had a genuine grievance. The public felt that these people were criminals, hooligans and thugs. Some wanted them to be branded terrorists. One section of the public wanted to call them cretins and morons.

In this column we will be concerned with another set of words: these do not lend themselves to controversy, and are often used in headlines. They refer to the rich, the powerful, and often, the corrupt. The example that caught my attention was the frequent use of the phrase “mining barons" alluding to some bigwigs of Karnataka.

Baron is a term that has come down from the ordering of British nobility. It refers to the lowest rank among the peerage, after royalty, dukes, marquises, earls and viscounts. By metaphorical extension, it refers to the rich and powerful entrepreneur, who resorts to unethical means to earn wealth and exercises heavy clout in business and politics. Baroness, however, is a term with no negative connotation. In 1992, Margaret Thatcher was elevated to the peerage and is now known as Baroness Thatcher.

In American history, we find references to robber barons. This term had a derogatory sense and stood for unscrupulous businessmen who used questionable practices to amass huge fortunes The success story of John D Rockefeller, a success achieved by his keen business insight and ruthless pursuit of his goals, makes people regard him as a captain of industry, though many want his name in the list of robber barons. He founded Standard Oil, which enjoyed a monopoly of the business till 1911, when the Supreme Court ordered the company to be broken up.

Another interesting title is moghul, originally as movie moghul, now more often media moghul. It stands for a rich, powerful person wielding considerable influence in public media, including television, radio and movies, and print media including newspapers and magazines. Ranking first among the media moghuls today is Rupert Murdoch, who made news recently. British Prime Minister David Cameron had to testify before an inquiry about his relationship with Murdoch. The allegation was that he used his position to win media support for his political campaign.

Oprah Winfrey has a unique place among media moghuls. According to Forbes, she is “US talk show queen and media moghul". Winfrey’s television presence drew a large number of loyal admirers, and her talk show is the “highest rated programme of its kind in history." She is the richest African American.

There are a few foreign language entries in the list. When we talk about Rockefeller, the oil tycoon, we are using a word borrowed from Japan. Tycoon was a title for the shogun, the supreme commander of the Japanese army. Commodore Perry introduced the word in America. It is now widely used in business discourse.

Another word that is gaining currency today is again Japanese: it is honcho, which can stand for senior executives of a company, and according to Investopedia, it can refer to the CEO of the business. In Japanese, it means squad leader.

Russian tsar, also spelt czar, refers to the emperor of Russia pre-revolution. Tsar today can stand for a powerful dictator, someone who has command over an enterprise or party. Czarina is the preferred spelling for the corresponding feminine noun.

Certain words get attached to certain contexts: the chief minister Tamil Nadu is the supremo of her party; Bal Thackeray is the supremo of his movement. The word comes from Spanish or Italian and can be traced to Latin.

From Italian comes mafia, the name of an organization which allegedly uses smuggling, extortion and other criminal methods, originally in Sicily, and now in the US, too. Mafia is a collective noun, with mafioso as singular and mafiosi as plural. Some are associated with a particular activity; my Oxford dictionary has the example, “the British literary mafia".

V.R. Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.

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