The inspiration for this post (to use the wrong word) was Steve Jobs’ resignation from Apple. As oil-rich necessarily accompanies any mention of a sheikdom, so Steve Jobs necessarily invokes the visionary tag. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not attacking Jobs or belittling his accomplishments. It pains me that his health problems have forced this move. The subject is pop-culture and language.
The root of that word, of course, is vision, and Wikipedia’s take on things is that the vision can involve the supernatural. Wiki’s first-mentioned visionary is Hildegard of Bingen—followed then by Mohammed, St. Bernadette, and Joseph Smith (founder of Mormonism). In the modern understanding of the word, a vision of the transcendental has been replaced by a vision of the future, a future so compelling that it leads to a transcending of the rules. Thus an op-ed today in the NYT states that Jobs “violated every rule of management.” Hildegard of Bingen did a little bit of that as well—the rules in the twelfth century being that a woman must keep herself out of sight. Interestingly, I note, when Wikipedia turns its attention to technology, the person at Apple it cites as the visionary is Steve Wozniak, Apple’s co-founder, the man who actually designed the first personal computer. It was Wozniak who had the vision—and strove mightily to give it birth. Steve Jobs’ contribution to that revolution lay in negotiating low prices for components and mounting the very successful sales and marketing campaign.
The practical visionary is also well-advised to live in wealthy times. The word’s etymology (from Online Etymology Dictionary) dates to the 1650s, meaning then the ability to see visions. By 1702, however, the word had begun to carry the meaning “one who indulges in impractical fantasies.” I date the Age of Oil (read fossil fuels) to 1748—when coal mining began in the United States. It would take a while before “impractical” visions regarding the material dimension could lead to visionary status.
Another interesting take on this is the use of the word over time, provided by Google’s Ngram viewer. Here is a link to that. The word peaked early in the 1820s, declined thereafter to about the late 1940s (wars and such?), began a little climb late in the 1960s, and then began rising again to prominence in 1980 as computers created the new visionary environment. But should we celebrate the inventor of pop-computing or the pitchman who brought us to the booth?
Added later: Well, all right. Prejudices are showing here, and I might as well come clean. Here are two older posts on the old LaMarotte on this subject, best read in the following order: one, two.