The word innovation might be mantra of business leaders and the inevitable future star of The Atlantic and Aspen Institute's forthcoming Aspen Ideas Festival. But the irony behind the king of buzzwords is that, originally, "innovation" wasn't a compliment. It was an accusation.
In fact, shouts of "Innovator!" used to be akin to charges of heresy. As with any question of intellectual history, the path of innovation through the centuries is complicated. Canadian historian Benoît Godin has done extensive research on the topic; oversimplifying his work quite a bit, a few of the key moments in the strange history of how innovation is framed and discussed seem particularly striking.
According to Godin, innovation is the most late-blooming incarnation of previously used terms like imitation and invention. When "novation" first appeared in thirteenth century law texts as a term for renewing contracts, it wasn't a term for creation -- it referred to newness. In the particularly entrenched religious atmosphere of sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, doctrinal innovation was anathema. Some saw this kind of newness as an affiliation with Puritanism, or worse -- popery. Godin cites an extreme case from 1636, when an English Puritan and former royal official, Henry Burton, began publishing pamphlets advocating against church officials as innovators, levying Proverbs 24:21 as his weapon: "My Sonne, feare thou the Lord, and the King, and meddle not with them that are given to change" (citation Godin's, emphasis mine). In turn, the pot-stirring Puritan was accused of being the true "innovator" and sentenced to a life in prison and worse -- a life without ears.