From infantrymen to innovators: the etymology of “pioneer”

The original pioneers were “foot soldiers” who cleared the way for the rest of the army.

This past Monday, US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos described historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.” Her statement came under immediate fire, though, as HBCUs were formed due to a  profound lack of choice black students faced under Jim Crow segregation laws. In the spirit of education, let’s learn a little history about the origin of the word pioneer

Historical pioneers literally broke ground. Image from

Clearing the way

Today, we think of pioneers kicking up dust with their wagons in the American West or innovators breaking ground in cutting-edge research. But pioneer actually begins as a military term.

Pioneer forged into English in the early 16th century. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first dates it to 1517, entered in The Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, a long-running public record. The word, in the form peonaris, appears in three entries for that year. This one is quite illustrative:

Item, to James Hogis xviiij peonaris quhilkis passit to said raid with pikkis and schulis, and remaynt ix dais.

The key passage – the pioneers, which passed to said raid with picks and shovels – gives us a clear glimpse at the historic sense of the word. Pioneers were originally foot soldiers who marched ahead of their regiment to dig trenches, clear roads and terrain, and otherwise prepare the way, with their picks and shovels, for the rest of the army.  Early on, pioneer also extended to “miners,” though this sense has since died out. The “colonist” and “settler” meaning of pioneer doesn’t appear in the record until the 1800s.

Step by step

English got pioneer from the Middle French pionnier, “foot solider,” which developed from the Old French peon for the same. Peon, in turn, morphed from the Latin pedonem, literally “one who goes on foot.” The base is pes (genitive pedis), “foot,” a root which walks all over English vocabulary, from impeach to pedestal. The Ancient Romans similarly used the likes of pedonem – or the more classical word, pedes for “foot solider” and “infantryman.”

The Old French peon also yields the English chess piece, the pawn. And in Spanish, pedonem became peon, originally an “unskilled farmworker” or “day laborer” in Latin America or the American Southwest, picked up for any sort of “menial, drudging nobody” by the early 20th century.

Pioneering pioneer

As for pioneer, we can see how its meaning of “a foot soldier who goes before the army to clear the way” readily lent itself to “a person who opens up the way in a field of knowledge or activity.” And it was Francis Bacon, a true pioneer of empiricism and the scientific method during the English Renaissance, who first trail-blazed the metaphorical pioneer in the written record, according to the OED. In his 1605 The Advancement of Learning, Bacon explicitly uses pioneer, in its early “digger” sense, as a metaphor:

It were good to deuide Na­turall Phylosophie into the Myne and the Fornace, and to make two professions or occupations of Na­turall Philosophers, some to bee Pionners, and some Smythes, some to digge, and some to refine, and Hammer.

Teachers doing the hard work of education, day after day, lesson after lesson, often say they are “in the trenches.” I suspect Betsy DeVos would do well, like those original pioneers, to grab her pick and shovel and join them. 

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