1. A wealthy and powerful businessperson or industrialist; a magnate.
2. Used formerly as a title for a Japanese shogun.
[Japanese taikun, title of a shogun, Middle Chinese taj` kyn, great prince : taj` kyn, great (also the source of Mandarin dà) + kyn, prince (also the source of Mandarin jūn).]
Word History: In 1853, Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed into a harbor near Tokyo and presented a letter from the American president Millard Fillmore demanding that Japan open itself to trade with the United States. At the time, the Japanese restricted foreign trade severely. Among Western nations, for example, only the Dutch were allowed to trade in Japan, and then only on a small island in the harbor of Nagasaki. This policy had been put in place in the 1630s by the shogun (as the rulers of premodern Japan were called). In late medieval times, the Japanese emperor had been reduced to a figurehead, and all real power belonged to the shogun, who ruled on the emperor's behalf. On the date of Perry's visit, the Tokugawa family had held the shogunate for 250 years, as a kind of hereditary monarchy. Although Perry believed that he was dealing with emissaries from the emperor, nominally the ruler of the land, in fact he met the representatives of the shogun. The emissaries spoke of the shogun as the taikun, using a title of Chinese origin that literally means "great prince." This title was used by Japanese officials in foreign relations because tennō, "emporer," was obviously unavailable—the shogun ruled the Empire of Japan in the emperor's name. The title shōgun itself was probably not considered grand enough, as it literally means just "general of the army." Accounts of Perry's visit made the shogun's title taikun well-known back in the United States as tycoon, and Abraham Lincoln's cabinet members took up tycoon as an affectionate nickname for the president. The word soon came to be used for business and industry leaders in general—at times being applied to figures like J.P. Morgan, who may indeed have wielded more power than many princes and presidents.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2015 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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