It is such a stupid cliche to start anything out with a dictionary definition, but in this case, it makes sense, so please bear with me:
movers and shakers: n. pl. -- People who are active or influential in some field or endeavor
For years, I always felt a little smug whenever hearing somebody use this idiom, because I thought I knew better: "It's not movers and shakers, you poor misinformed dolt," I'd think. "It's movers and shapers!" (Of course, I'd never outwardly betray my inner condescending-language geek. It's impolite to correct people. Much better to disingenuously smile and nod.)
Now, there are lots of colloquialisms and phrases in the English language that are often misheard and misspelled, and I thought I knew them all. For instance, in news stories about crime and corruption, frequently we read about people who "flaunt the law" rather than flout it. More civic-minded or timid folks are sometimes said to "tow the line" -- not toe it, as is correct. And then I suppose they await their reward and the punishment of the wicked "with baited breath" -- which likely has a stronger odor than breath that is properly bated. *
I thought "movers and shakers" was one of these. After all, they're people who shape our culture and our world, not people who shake, right? And the term "shaker" means so many different things to so many different people, it obviously crept in where it didn't belong.
For one thing, Shakers are members of a near-extinct religious community whose numbers unfortunately have dwindled due to their adherence to celibacy, and new members have failed to join up, even though the Shakers live an idyllic, peaceful existence and are known for making damned good, highly collectible furniture.
I've been fascinated by Shaker culture for many years. So, one evening when my redneck brother announced he was going to a "shaker bar," I was all ready to accompany him -- until I realized he meant a strip club, and the so-called shakers were breast-implanted pole dancers. Yes, these women were daughters, sisters and sometimes even mothers, but still my brother enjoyed slipping currency into their G-strings.
Foodies, and others who eat, might remark that shakers are also culinary implements used to dispense granulated seasonings.
None of these things -- with the possible exception of the salt & pepper gear -- can be said to have been highly influential over our human culture. But, as with so many philosophical issues, the thing that finally convinced me I was right was a Stephen Sondheim musical.
Merrily We Roll Along (1981) tracks a group of college chums -- creative types, all -- who sell out, cash in, lose their souls and sacrifice their ideals over the course of their financially lucrative careers. The brilliant thing is that the story is told in reverse chronology, so that the show opens with the lead character Frank Shepard delivering a cynical commencement address at his alma mater extolling the virtues of practicality and compromise. The finale is Frank giving an idealistic valedictorian speech to his own graduating class 25 years earlier about their "obligation ... to change the world."
It is a wonderful, oft-underrated show. Early in the first act, when Frank and his cohorts are still thoroughly old and jaded, there's a party scene ("Rich and Happy") in which a few hundred of his closest friends snort coke and celebrate the "success" of Frank's latest Hollywood blockbuster. And this is where inebriated old-time friend Mary Flynn insults the guests:
These are the movers, these are the shapers,
These are the people that fill the papers.
These are the movers, these are the shapers,
These are the people that give you vapors.
So, "shapers," right? Nothing else could rhyme with "papers" and "vapors." Certainly not "shakers." I mean, this is Stephen Sondheim, for heck's sake! Anything he writes is gospel to me (although shouldn't it have been "the people who" rather than "the people that"?). And this is how, for years, I smugly maintained that the proper terminology is "movers and shapers" -- and anybody who thinks it's "shakers" is an idiot.
Then I came across this passage from the 1874 poem by Arthur O'Shaughnessy:
We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.
. . . .
No, Sondheim is not wrong. I would never say that. His use of "shapers" was obviously creative wordplay.
But I must apologize for all those times I felt smug when people said, "movers and shakers." Obviously, the phrase has a more respectable provenance than I ever imagined.