Who has the conn?

In a meeting, when the discussion about a topic comes to an end and there is some action to be taken, someone will often ask, “Who has the conn?” If you are like me you understand what it means (who is in charge of taking action after the meeting), but you wonder about the etymology of the word. Is it an abbreviation? An acronym? Slang? Or maybe it really is a word on its own? Well, I have an answer for you.

“Conn,” meaning the power to metaphorically steer the course of an endeavor or enterprise, comes from the literal use of that power. When “conn” (in the form “cun”) first appeared in English in the 17th century as a verb, it meant “to direct the steering or course of a ship,” usually from the bridge of the ship or its equivalent. Obviously, the captain of a ship has the primary responsibility for “conning” the vessel, but often delegates the “conn” (the noun appeared in the early 19th century) to subordinate officers. Early battleships actually had elevated “conning towers,” armored to protect the captain, et al., but today the same functions are usually carried out from a “conning station” on the ship’s bridge.

For a term redolent of the high seas and naval battles of yore, “conn” has a remarkably tame origin. “Conn” apparently arose as a variant form of the verb “cond,” also meaning “to direct the steering of a ship,” which in turn derived from the obsolete verb “condue,” meaning “to conduct or guide.” As you might suspect, “condue” itself ultimately harks back to the Latin “conducere” (to lead or guide), which also gave us our modern English “conduct.”