Despite coming into the language some few centuries ago, this word has only really risen in popularity in recent years. Let’s take a look at what it means today.
I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which unfortunately I cannot link for you, as you have to subscribe. This is what it says:
“1. give (someone) the authority or power to do something. 2. [with object] make (someone) stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights”.
I then looked it up in two other well respected dictionaries – Merriam Webster and Macmillan. Interestingly, while both agree with the OED on the first meaning, the second, with connotations of strength and confidence, appears only in the OED.
I then went on to see how the meaning of the word is generally perceived, and what people are using it to mean. I canvassed opinions on what people thought it meant, and how they would use it themselves.
Some of the answers I received were what you might expect, along the lines of “give power or authority (including strength and influence) to someone or something, or even to an idea”. Others made it a more personal concept. One person said it meant “to give someone tools, material or otherwise, to grow, to improve or further themselves”. Another suggested that it meant “to give the ability to take control of events/ oneself”.
Then there were less positive views of the what the word signifies. A number of people related it to feminism, telling me it was a “spurious third-wave [feminism] concept; typically gendered; typically illusory.” Or, along similar lines; “it’s a way of duping women into believing they have power without actually having any. It’s an illusion.” The idea of it being illusory cropped up frequently. One person told me pessimistically: “It always seems to be used where someone doesn’t have power and another is being ‘benevolent’”. In a similar vein, another answer was: “conferring power on the (relatively) powerless, from a position of (relative) power”.
A small number of people said that there were two distinct meanings – one being “confer authority upon” and the other “boost confidence” or, as one person very nicely phrased it; “bolster one’s resolve”.
It seems, then, that whatever the dictionary may tell us, the word is both perceived and used in different ways. Does this mean that all these people are wrong and we should stop using the word in these ways? Not at all. Perhaps the word is currently undergoing a period of evolution, aided by references to feminism and other movements in the media. It is evolving, and these perceptions of its meaning are not isolated – it has come to have connotations of either supporting and strengthening confidence or a derisory means of controlling those in a position of relative weakness, such as in the “illusion” responses I received. It is used and understood in this way by a large number of people, and therefore, I would argue, what we are witnessing is a semantic shift. This does not mean that “empower” has lost any other meanings it had, just that it has gained more and is being used in a wider context. It may lose its hitherto primary sense in the future; it is impossible to say which path it will take.
Journey through Time
Historically, we find the first instance of it in 1655, in The Reign of King Charles, by Hamon L’Estrange:
“…letters from the pope empowering them to erect this college…”
The meaning here is “giving authority”, a context in which it continues to be used today. A short while later, we see it with a slightly different shade of meaning, in 1667 in Milton’s work Paradise Lost, where he writes:
“Thou us impow’rd to fortifie thus farr.”
Here, it means “bestow power upon”. In the intervening time until the twentieth century, it was largely used in these ways. Any concepts of bolstering confidence or relevance to feminism are a modern dimension.
Although the word has evolved in usage over time, it is still worth looking at where it came from. It is formed from two components: en + power. We shall start with the first element; en. This is a preposition often used as a prefix on other words. It comes from Latin in-, meaning “in, into, towards”. The “in/im” spelling was often used in the past, as you can see in the example from Milton above. The “en/em” version comes from the French version of the Latin.
The second element, power, comes from Anglo-French pouer, pouair, which is from Old French povoir. This evolved from Latin potere, which meant “to be able to”. Thus, you might say that according to its etymology, the word should mean “enable”! And perhaps it does in some contexts.