How Knowing the Roots of Innovation Can Make You a Better Innovator

Innovation is a buzzword everyone is throwing around these days. You don’t need to listen closely or pay much attention to media to be bombarded by the word. It seems like every business tries to convince you that they’re innovative and that each new product is itself an innovation.

Confused?  You know that innovation is the process of creating new things and that if a company is innovative then it must be doing something new in a way that makes it stand out. However, if every company is innovative then none of them are, right? Has the word has lost its meaning completely? You would be justified in asking such a question.

So what does innovation really mean?

To answer that question, I think we need to back up a little bit. Let’s take a peek at where the word came from. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think poorly of the word “innovation”. I just think that time and overuse may have confused our understanding of the term.  If we are to make the future great, we need innovation. However, if we’re going to make innovation great again, we need to take a look at the past.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word innovate can be traced back to the mid-1500s. Derived from the Late Latin word innovates, the past participle of innovare, the word can be defined as “renew” or “restore”.

By transitive property that would mean that the word innovation could be said to mean “renewal” or “restoration”. This alone provides a new way to look at the word innovation. Instead of the idea that innovation is the creation of something completely new, the etymology suggests that innovation is the rejuvenation of something that already exists.

However, another theory of innovation appears if we continue to breakdown the etymology even further. The Latin word innovare, from which innovate is derived, can itself be broken down into two base parts. The first part of the word is derived from the prefix in- which means “into” and the second part comes from novus which means “new”. This breakdown suggests that innovare and, subsequently, innovate means to “bring in new things” rather than simply “renew”.

So we have another theory. innovation doesn’t mean to rejuvenate pre-existing things but rather to bring in new ones. Furthermore, this theory has two parts: the “bringing in” part and the “new things” part. To make things a bit simpler, we can represent “bringing in” as “Action” and “new things” as “Novelty”. Therefore, we can say that Innovation, based on an etymological analysis, is composed of the two pieces, Action and Novelty. Represented as an equation we would say:

Innovation = Action + Novelty

By Novelty, we mean things that are new, original, or unusual. Action without Novelty is just doing more of the same thing that has been done. By Action, we mean the process of developing the Novelty and bringing it forth to society. Novelty without Action is just dreaming or wishful thinking without actually getting anything done. Thus, innovation requires both Action and Novelty. Without one or the other, you can’t have innovation.  If you have a lot of ideas but never act on them, you are not innovative. Furthermore, if you do a lot but none of it is truly new, you are not innovative. True innovation is bringing in new things.

Many people believe that we should abandon the word innovation altogether, arguing that the word has lost its meaning. I disagree. I would like to see the word mean something again. Sometimes….making something new means returning to its roots.


Guest blogger Joshua Newman is a History student at the University of North Florida. His research focus is innovation and entrepreneurship

Guest blogger Joshua Newman is a History student at the University of North Florida. His research focus is innovation and entrepreneurship