Compliance broke into the English language in the 1640s with a wide variety of meanings.
But compliance as a business word had to wait a few hundred years! It was the Enron disaster when one of the largest American companies simply imploded that started compliance on its new path. It was pushed there by the American congressmen, Sarbanes and Oxley, who pushed through legislation which stipulated that managers have a high level of personal responsibility for what happens in the companies in which they work. This resulted in a new profession being created very quickly – the Compliance Officer whose job is to ensure that external rules are adhered to.
The overriding aim is to ensure free and fair compliance, to ensure that base compliance does not occur with the result that there is a high level of appropriate behaviour within a company. This is exactly how the word developed over time.
Being nice or civil was the first use of compliance in 1641. Compliance was introduced by a John Jackson, Puritan preacher who also used the words commensurate, intimacy and nervously in his sermons. He wrote that although a person was no longer a monarch, he still received “convenient connivences and compliances from the state”.
Compliance as good relations and harmony was recorded in 1647. In Liverpool it seems that soldiers and citizens did not get on very well. General hope was expressed “that in all things there may be a free and fair compliance betwixt the townsmen and the soldiers”.
In 1649 Milton uses compliance to mean absolute agreement to the point of servility, calling it “base compliance”. In the same year, the word emerges in its current sense in a book Eikon Basilike. It was published as the autobiography of King Charles I who has just been beheaded. The now dead king states that he suffered attacks of conscience on his consent to an earlier execution, confession that he chose what was safe rather than what was just when he gave his compliance.