"Why can't they just call it 'fundraising'?" I grumbled to a friend, many, many moons ago, after she had just taken a job in the "development office" of one of New England's many fine private colleges.
It was my first exposure to the usage, and I hadn't yet registered how widespread it was – and is. But it smacks of unnecessary euphemism.
It's not as if raising money for one's alma mater or any other valuable institution is a sordid activity that has to be hidden under some other name. The American tendency to organize into, and generously support, voluntary associations for all sorts of purposes has been observed and celebrated at least since Tocqueville.
"Develop," the verb, comes from French words meaning to unwrap, unroll, or unfold. It is etymologically a counterpart of the verb "envelop."
Both the verb and the noun are used in different ways in different fields, but with some underlying commonalities: an opening or manifesting of some sort, and some sense of stages or phases, generally gradual but occasionally fast-moving.
Thus we have the development of buds and blossoms on a tree; the development of photographic film, in which the image appears; real estate development ("Phase II opening this spring!"); and, in the world of journalism, late-breaking developments on the big story.
But when I turn to OneLook.com, which lets me look up a word in several online dictionaries simultaneously and glance at the "quick definitions" for "development," I see that there are eight of them and none refer to fundraising. This is not a good sign.
Let us beware the disconnect that arises when the practitioners of an activity call it something else other than the term by which it's generally known.
("And what does Sally's new boyfriend do?" Uncle Ralph asks with avuncular concern. "He's the new development officer at Springback Junior College," Mom replies, as Sally has coached her. To which Uncle Ralph, who's no fool, shoots back, "You mean he hits people up for money?")
It gets all the more complicated when you consider that the kind of institutions that call their fundraisers "development officers" generally do a lot of things that really should be described as "development," e.g., "developmental studies" designed to refresh the skills or fill in the knowledge gaps of those wanting to continue their education, perhaps later in life or after a hard-knocks childhood.
Thus when I ran across mention of some borderline students as "development cases" in the context of admissions to megabucks private institutions, I thought it referred to those students on whom the college has compassion, seeing unrealized potential that only needs to be brought out.
The term refers to borderline students, all right, but those whom the institution sees as potential donors down the line. It's development in that other sense. And the practice has at least one reporter fairly cranked up – Daniel Golden, a Pulitzer Prize-winner who has just published a book, "The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges – and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates."
As The Washington Post noted in its review of Golden's book, "That virtually all elite private colleges give preference to the sons and daughters of alumni will come as a surprise to no one. But preference also extends to wealthy applicants whose families have been identified as potential donors – 'development cases' in the parlance of the trade.
Now that is a dubious development indeed.
• This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.