Word Stories # 2 Nepotism

Nepotism is the practice among those with power or influence of favouring relatives or friends, especially by giving them jobs. The word nepotism comes from the Italian nipote, which in turn derives from nepos, the Latin word for grandson or nephew). As you will have seen from my piece about the Borgias, the word originated from the practice of Renaissance popes of conferring important positions to their nephews and grandsons. I have even read that the word was used as a euphemism for an illegitimate son. The practice was finally ended in 1692 when Pope Innocent XII issued the bull Romanum decet Pontificem, prohibiting popes in all times from bestowing estates, offices, or revenues on any relative.

Nepotism can be found politics, entertainment and business, particularly small businesses. Even if you take larger companies you find that a third of the companies in the Fortune 500 are family-controlled firms. Peter Buffett, the son of Warren, the third-richest person in the world did not follow his father into the family business. He is a sceptic about family succession:

Well, you know, my dad talks about the ovarian lottery, this idea that you’re born into these circumstances that you can’t, at least as far as I’m concerned, you can’t control when you’re on the other side of being born. And so I think there’s a version of that that holds true in this. You know, the odds of having a son or daughter that are as passionate, and excited and driven as a founder of a business was, or even the person that took it over—whatever that might be, whatever passion and drive was there in that person—the odds of that being in the next generation, I think are incredibly small. You would know the details better than I, but I think that if the child is truly passionate about it and lives and breathes the same thing, absolutely. But again, what are the odds?

The BBC World Service did an excellent programme about nepotism at Italian Universities. In Italy there is a perception that it is not what you know, but who you know that counts. The programme feature Professor Roberto Perotti, who wrote a book on Italy’s nepotism culture, called The Rigged University. He has published revealing studies of university teachers, showing the extraordinary concentration of surnames in many departments. Here is a quote from a BBC article about the programme:

Luigi Frati, the Rector of La Sapienza University in Rome, has become one of the most notorious figures in the scandal, which local media have dubbed “Parentopoli” – or “Relative-gate”. A doctor by training, Professor Frati has, both as rector and formerly as head of the university’s medical faculty, overseen the promotion of his wife, a former local high school history teacher, to the post of Professor of Medical History. His daughter also gained a post as Professor of Legal Medicine – without any specific medical education. And his son was made an associate professor in cardiology aged just 31, one of the youngest Italians to gain such an appointment. He has denied claims of nepotism, insisting that all his loved-ones just happen to be the best qualified. Responding to the allegations, he told Italian television, “In Italy we are not used to being meritocratic through strictly objective criteria. We are used to doing it our own way.” It’s hard to disagree. The high court has made nepotistic appointments technically illegal in Italy’s public sector, though no-one has ever been successfully prosecuted for them.


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