Semantics

“The way we use ‘entitled’ feels less strange when you consider that its two meanings have slightly different origins”

The way we use “entitled” feels less strange when you consider that its two meanings have slightly different origins. Once upon a time, “entitlement” was, quite literally, something granted by a higher authority: A “noble” person pleased the sovereign, perhaps by acquiring land or fighting bravely, and in return the sovereign bestowed upon him special rights and privileges, perks not afforded to a commoner, including the right not to have their estate expropriated by the crown. “Entitlement” was a recognition of service, a promise of specific legal benefits. In some cases it came with an actual title, like the feudal “baron.”

Something similar has been true in the United States, where “entitlements” refers to government benefit programs not subject to budgetary discretion — assistance that the state was obligated, on levels both legal and societal, to provide to all eligible citizens. According to the linguist Geoff Nunberg, it was sometime after the publication of “The Culture of Narcissism,” an influential 1979 book by Christopher Lasch, that a certain negative connotation began to spread. Legitimate “entitlement” and an illegitimate sense of entitlement merged. You might now be an entitled person: someone whose privilege leads to arrogance, snobbery and rudeness, someone who expects to be waited on, provided for, deferred to.

This was an unfortunate development for those who depended on entitlement programs, who were increasingly cast as undeserving — people who “chose” to be poor, via laziness and lack of responsibility, and yet felt “entitled” to governmental support. Even before Lasch’s book, Ronald Reagan, during his first run for president, held up an actual career criminal — a con woman, identity thief and suspected kidnapper believed to have bilked the government of untold thousands of dollars — as a symbol of excess, conjuring around her a world of fantastical “welfare queens”: enemies of the bootstrapping individualist spirit of America, coddled and demanding and overly dependent on programs they were, in fact, legally entitled to use. The apotheosis of this concept was laid out by Mitt Romney in 2012, when he declared that 47 percent of voters were dependent on the government, saw themselves as victims and believed “that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that’s an entitlement.” It was not his job, he argued, to care about such people, whom he’d “never convince” that they should “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Of course, it did not escape American voters that as the very wealthy scion of a very powerful family, Romney was the epitome of an “entitled” man in the original, feudal sense; his entitlement was hereditary. And he was, above all, in a position to make influential judgments about what others had, what others wanted, what people deserved or did not.

Carina Chocano, “Uncivil Rights”, The New York Times Magazine (4 March 2018), 10-11.