Etymology of Innovation

by Jay Fraser

In a recent discussion with my good friend and patent attorney, the question of the meaning of the word “innovation” came up.  That conversation prompted me to write this piece.  He asked me if I knew what the word “innovation” meant.  I gave what I suppose is the standard answer (from Merriam-Webster – a. the introduction of something new and relevant; b. a new idea, method or device).  His response was,

“No, you need to look deeper and go beyond the first level of a Google search to understand.”

At that point I was intrigued and looked deeper into the etymology of the word. Here is what I found:

“Innovation comes from the Latin innovationem, noun of action from innovare. The Etymology Dictionary further explains innovare as dating back to 1540 and stemming from the Latin innovatus, pp. of innovare “to renew or change,” from in- “into” + novus “new”.

Innovation can therefore be seen as the process that renews something that exists and not, as is commonly assumed, the introduction of something new. Furthermore this makes clear that innovation is not an economic term by origin, but dates back to the Middle Ages at least and possibly even earlier.

The central meaning of innovation really relates to renewal. For this renewal to take place it is necessary for people to change the way they make decisions, they must choose to do things differently, make choices outside of their norm.

Further on this can be found here – http://www.myetymology.com/latin/innovator.html

Thus, according to the etymology of the word and not the accepted definition, innovation is changing something that already exists and not necessarily making something new. In fact then, innovation has nothing to do with invention, creation or rights.

From this we can conclude as others have justly said that there is a difference between innovation and invention. Is this contradictory?  Not really, I suspect.

Innovation differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of a better and, as a result, novel idea or method, whereas invention refers more directly to the creation of the idea or method itself.  Innovation differs from improvement in that innovation refers to the notion of doing something different rather than doing the same thing better.

We can therefore conclude that an innovation may be something that is evolutionary without ever being something new. In fact by this classic definition of the word innovation, an invention is at least a step beyond renewal, because it creates something entirely new.  This is an intriguing conclusion since if invention is not in and of itself critical or central to innovation then the huge technology companies like Microsoft, Google, Apple and Cisco don’t need invention or IP. Instead, by this definition, they “simply” have to find ways to take a new look at the way other companies do something and do it better.

image credit: google.com
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Jay Fraser has spent his career in strategy, marketing, product development and technology transfer. From management on Madison Avenue to technology transfer, and later as an entrepreneur in tech research related to security applications, he licensed technology from federal labs and leveraged the expertise of these institutions in federally funded R&D programs. He negotiated CRADAs and served as an R&D Program Manager for the Office of Naval Research. As a consultant, he is intrigued by managing the process of innovation from a practical, real world perspective.

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