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The meaning and origin of the expression: Movers and shakers

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Movers and shakers

Meaning

People of energetic demeanour, who initiate change and influence events.

Origin

The expression 'movers and shakers' is now most often applied to the rich and powerful in politics and business. In a year (2009) in which the movers and shakers of the financial world brought us to the brink of ruin, it is worth a thought as to who the original movers and shakers were.

movers and shakersA plausible guess is that it refers in board games like Snakes and Ladders; those have shaken dice, moves and winners and losers. However, as I've often had cause to mention, plausibility is the enemy of truth when it comes to explaining the origins of phrases. There's no documentary evidence at all to link this expression to the playing of board games.

The public perception of the term began after the first performance of Sir Edward Elgar's popular choral work The Music Makers, at the Birmingham Festival in October 1912. The work is a setting of Arthur O'Shaughnessy's 1874 poem 'Ode', from his Music and Moonlight collection. In that poem, which singles out poets and musicians as the bards that guide lay thinking, O'Shaughnessy coined the phrase 'movers and shakers':

We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.

By 'shakers', O'Shaughnessy didn't mean the Shakers that are an offshoot of the Quaker religion, more fully known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, but simply those who shake the foundations of conventional thinking by the strength of their imagination and vision.

Movers and shakersEdward ElgarThe poem is by far O'Shaughnessy's best known work and it had a profound effect on Elgar, who set the complete poem without alteration. The two men were admirers of each other's work and, judging from from their photographs, would have made a strong joint entry in a 'Spot the Victorian Gentleman' competition. Nevertheless, although the first two lines of the poem became well known, the phrase 'movers and shakers' didn't begin to be used more widely until well into the 20th century, when it was taken up in the USA. It was hardly used at all until the American socialite and patron of the arts Mabel Dodge Luhan used it as the title of a volume of her autobiography, published in 1934. 'Movers and shakers', along with the alternative 'shakers and movers', which was clearly coined in ignorance of the poetic original, began to be used commonly in the USA in the 1960s and 70s and later in other countries. It was then exclusively applied to people in business and other positions of power; for example, from the magazine Ebony, July 1962:

The fabulous Rollins sisters were operating a Paris-style salon for movers and shakers.