a wealthy, powerful person in business or industry





This word is from Japanese taikun, itself from Chinese ta, great, and chün, ruler.

Tycoon was originally the title by which the shogun of Japan was described to foreigners from the mid-19th century to the end of the Tokugawa period, which was the last shogunate. The shogun was a hereditary commander-in-chief in feudal Japan. Because of the military power concentrated in his hands and the consequent weakness of the nominal head of state, i.e. the emperor, or mikado, the shogun was generally the real ruler of the country until feudalism was abolished in 1867. The following explanations are from The Encyclopædia Britannica (9th edition, 1881):

Prior to the recent revolution the foreign treaties were concluded with the ministers of the shôgun, at Yedo, under the erroneous impression that he was the emperor of Japan. The title of taikun (often misspelt tycoon) was then for the first time used; it means literally the “great ruler,” and was employed for the occasion by the Tokugawa officials to convey the impression that their chief was in reality the lord paramount. It is, however, worthy of note that even in these earlier treaties the title corresponding to “His Majesty” was never assumed by the shôgun. The actual position of this official remained unknown to the foreign envoys until 1868, when the British, Dutch, and French ministers proceeded to Kiôto, and there obtained from the mikado his formal ratification of the treaties already concluded with his powerful subject. Since that time all treaties with Western powers are made out in the name of the emperor of Japan. It was thus that the foreigners came prominently into notice at the time of the revolution, with which, however, beyond this they had really no connexion.

The word is first recorded in the diary of Townsend Harris (1804-78), first American Consul General and Minister to Japan:

Wednesday, October 28, 1857. To-day, I am told Ziogoon is not the proper appellation of their ruler, but that it is Tykoon. Ziogoon is literally “Generalissimo” while Tykoon means “Great Ruler.” The genius of the people shines out in this. For more than a year I have spoken and written Ziogoon when referring to their ruler, and they never gave me any explanation; but now, when I am on the eve of starting for Yedo, they give me the real word.

Tycoon was one of the nicknames given by the American statesman John Hay (1838-1905) to Abraham Lincoln (1809-65), president of the USA from 1861 to 1865. On 25th April 1861, during the American Civil War, Hay wrote in his diary:

General Butler has sent an imploring request to the President to be allowed to bag the whole nest of traitorous Maryland Legislators. This the Tycoon, wishing to observe every comity, even with a recusant State, forbade.

In the general sense of a dominant or important person, tycoon is first recorded in Outing: The Gentlemen’s Magazine of Sport, Travel and Outdoor Life (New York) of November 1886:


   The general passenger agent had been most kind to Lassie, Sea Urchin and Outing, our three canoes. With a degree of consideration we could not but marvel at, he had written a letter authorizing us to take our several boats all the way from New York harbor to the St. Lawrence river, at Cape Vincent, as our personal luggage. As we were all booked for a sleeping car that went through without change, we reveled in the luxurious anticipation of waking up on the morning after taking to our “sleepers” and finding our canoes carefully laid on the station platform, along with the rest of the passengers’ effects.
   To make assurance doubly sure, however, we went an hour ahead of time to the train, to see the baggage-master, show him the letter of his chief, and assure ourselves that the three dear canoes were well stowed for the night.
 Arrived at that majestic Hibernian’s office we humbly presented our credentials, and begged his co-operation. After looking the paper over for some time as he sat tilted back in his chair, expanding and contracting the leather of his cheeks, he concluded to look the property up, and sauntered around the premises vaguely inquiring of Jim, Jack and Jake if they had seen any canoes “lyin’ around.” Some one admitted having seen some wooden things looking like coffins, and these objects proving to be Lassie, Sea Urchin and Outing, they were duly checked and carried to the baggage car.
    Our worries commenced at this point.
   Being checked, they were entitled to a passage, but whether they would go through with their owners or even get through without injury were questions of considerable interest. The conductor was putting a shine to his boots, and the baggage tycoon was masticating Virginia leaf when the station master, followed by the first boat, presented himself, and showed the letter of the general passenger agent. The tycoon of the baggage car objected to handling the boat, remarking that there was no room for such a —— —— son of a —— of a boat as the one presented.
  The party presumably addressed whistled softly from the “Mikado” as he turned his back and strolled off to his office chair, leaving a few irregular spots of tobacco-juice in his wake.
 When the sister boats made their appearance, the expletives of both conductor and baggage tycoon became more frequent if not more profane, the burden of their language being that the railway chiefs were “a set of —— —— cranks” who did not know what ought to go into a baggage car, and that the said car was “so —— —— small” and the canoes were “so —— —— big” that they could not be moved.
  “Fortunately,” thought I, “this is the only difficult point. Once on board, they will not be disturbed until taken out on the banks of the mighty St. Lawrence.” So I sought to reason with the profane tycoon and succeeded so well by the help of a bribe, that he cursed less violently and permitted some porters to place the canoes in his car.

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