Q: In the past couple of years, I’ve been hearing business people say they “own” a project, by which they mean they accept responsibility for its tasks, as well as its success and failure. How do you feel about this new use of the word “own”?
A: We’re used to hearing people say things like “This is my project.” But “I own this project” sounds a bit in your face to us, as if possession has been taken a step too far.
Nevertheless, this seems to be a common usage in the corporate world, if Google hits are any indication. And we have to admit that it isn’t out of line etymologically.
The verb “own,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has had many meanings over the centuries.
Of course there’s its original sense: “to have or hold as one’s own; to have belonging to one, be the proprietor of, possess.”
But there are also many figurative and extended meanings: to confess or admit to something (as in “own up to”); to lay claim to; to recognize as familiar; to acknowledge as belonging to oneself; to grant the truth of, and others.
One such meaning – “to have control over or direction of (a person or thing)” – was actually first recorded in Old English but didn’t pop up again until the late 19th century.
In the OED’s first citation in print for this modern sense of the word, from an 1890 issue of The Spectator, the writer says American millionaires have a “practice of ‘owning,’ that is, controlling, both the professional politicians and the press.”
And here’s a more recent example, from Charles Shaar Murray’s Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and the Post-War Rock ’n’ Roll Revolution (1989): “The USA ‘owns’ the history of the Vietnamese war despite losing the conflict itself.”
We found another example in the same book: “The audiences can ‘own’ the commodity in a more intimate sense than ever before.”
Judging by the OED’s citations, though, this isn’t precisely the same “own” as in “I own this project.”
Another sense of the verb, “to be or feel responsible for considering or solving (a problem, issue, task, etc.),” came into use in the late 20th century, according to the OED.
The first citation in print is from Thomas Gordon’s book P.E.T.: Parent Effectiveness Training (1970): “When a child’s behavior … interferes with the parent’s enjoyment of life or his right to satisfy his own needs, the parent clearly ‘owns’ the problem.”
Here’s another example, from a telecommunications industry news organization: “Heilmeier set the tone of the workshop by calling on us to own the problem and not toss it over the fence to another organization” (1991).
Again, that kind of ownership – as in, “It’s your problem, take care of it” – seems more of a liability than the kind you refer to, which involves being in command or having power.
We often run into another meaning of “own,” the one people use when they say that a candidate “owns the debate” or an entertainer “owns the room.”
For example, a movie star who “owns” the screen dominates it by his or her excellence. But once again, this isn’t the same “own” as in “I own this project.”
So it may be that here we have yet another variation on the theme, one the OED hasn’t yet documented.
This “own” makes sense etymologically, as we’ve said, but its aggressive tone sounds a little dissonant to our ears. Maybe the corporate world will tire of it and it’ll quietly go away.
Check out our books about the English language