The word “client” is ancient, y’all. And like many things that old, its journey from there to here is a reflection of our own.
ANCIENT – ACCESS TO POWER
CLIENT – Its oldest known root meant ‘TO LEAN’ – a sense that Latin carried into the Roman Empire’s system of patronage. The patronus (patron) provided (financial, physical, legal, or social) protection in exchange for the services of their cliens (clients).
Not one-to-one, these relationships functioned as a NETWORK (clientela) of social interdependency.
Still, right from the start, “client” is part of a hierarchical classification, signaling one of the earliest economies to impose order on society according to social access (power).
And yep, it’s colonial as all get-out. As Rome extended its reach, it used the patronage system to define itself politically, its national conquests now “client-states.” It is the likely foundation of Europe’s feudal system.
And as Europe colonized, the patron-client system forcibly replaced the indigenous hierarchies of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, with increasing degrees of cruelty.
1400 CE – ACCESS TO KNOWLEDGE
BUT just as the West begins to emerge from the Middle Ages, the word “client” appears for the first time in English in a way that is clearly reaching for its earliest origins. Given the law’s love of Latin, it’s no surprise that “client” then emerges specifically as the word for one retaining the services of an attorney.
In this first appearance in its modern sense, the word now indicates a one-to-one relationship based on a different KIND of hierarchy – one of specified knowledge. So much so that by 1600, the word “client” is used to indicate anyone who puts their interests into the care or management of another.
From then on, one is a “client” when putting their personal/financial wellbeing in the hands of someone who has access to knowledge that you do not. You can be the “customer” of a brand (say, Target or Nike), but you are the “client” of a SKILL (a doctor, an accountant, a website builder, a marketer) or social service.
In a sense, we see the word “client” beginning to repatriate itself in Middle English. And even more so in modern English, as skill/knowledge necessarily become more acutely and narrowly specialized.
TODAY- ACCESS TO A CRUCIAL NETWORK
In business especially, I feel the tangible echoes of the word’s proto-linguistic root – *KLEI – ‘to lean.’ As a client, we lean upon the knowledge (and its protection) of another that we do not have.
I also feel the word coming home to its early sense of interdependent social “network.” Because I’ve spent a career mastering one thing, I both HAVE clients and AM a client of many.
We depend upon one another – we LEAN on one another’s expertise, skills, and knowledge. And in that leaning, we rely on one another to protect us from what we do not know.
We rely on our clients to protect us in the most important of ways – to pay our mortgage and feed our kids. They rely on us to help them do the same. The client relationship is an intense, intimate, interdependent exchange of trust.
That’s the word, bird.