When we think of manipulating objects, we might think of a juggler, magician, chef, etc.

When we think of manipulating people, however, it almost always comes with negative connotations. These fascinate me as we're perfectly prepared to have our behaviour altered by charsimatic people, but not manipulative ones.

When I look up the origins of the word, the online etymology dictionary tells me it comes from Latin of filling the hand, to manipule, meaning a measure, to skillful handling of objects, to the skillful handling of people.

I'm also familiar with NLP, Neil Strauss's "The Game", and Cialdini's "Influence".

Was there any negative connotation of manipulation before these?

Are there any other words that carry a more definite negative that I'm not aware of?

  • 1
    Here's he could manipulate any woman but his wife from 1839. I doubt the writer meant "fondle". Commented Aug 22, 2012 at 22:06
  • @FumbleFingers I think he makes it pretty explicit in the later text - thank you for that! Still looking for more though (it's for a talk on respect for people).
    – Lunivore
    Commented Aug 22, 2012 at 22:21
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    I'm not sure the etymology of manipulate, or knowledge of when it first came to be used in the sense you're focussed on, will be much help. But the key distinction is that it means to influence covertly, surreptitiously. With charismatic people, there's no implication that they're in any way secretive about what they're doing. There's nothing inherently disrespectful about seeking to influence people, but deception and secrecy aren't really compatible with respect. Commented Aug 22, 2012 at 22:51
  • Who says charismatic people can't be manipulative? Often these are the most manipulative people — politicians, for example.
    – Robusto
    Commented Aug 23, 2012 at 0:00
  • Thanks again @FumbleFingers, that's a really useful insight. Do you have any links to definitions that include the notion of covert or surreptitious behavior please?
    – Lunivore
    Commented Aug 23, 2012 at 8:21

2 Answers 2


If you're looking for a more negative word meaning manipulative, I'd say Machiavellian fills the bill. It means unscrupulously cunning and manipulative.


I'll answer your first question ("Was there any negative connotation of manipulation before these?"). Your second question seems hard to answer: how can we possibly know which words and senses you are not aware of?

In the OED the earliest citations given that have the negative connotation are this one for manipulate:

1862   T. Carlyle Hist. Friedrich II of Prussia III. xii. xi. 358   He had got his Electors manipulated, tickled to his purpose.

And this one for manipulation:

1875   W. Stubbs Constit. Hist. II. xvii. 611   The third estate..was only too susceptible of royal manipulation.

So this sense is much older than neuro-linguistic programming (1970s), Influence (2001), or The Game (2005). You might want to read about the idea of recency illusion.

  • Not suffering from recency illusion, or I wouldn't have posted requests for more info. You might want to read about the idea of double-loop learning. Thanks for the excerpts anyway. FumbleFingers has given me 1839 in the comments so we know it's earlier than these.
    – Lunivore
    Commented Aug 23, 2012 at 11:45

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