A word I’ve been thinking about recently is entitlement, a term that has played a role in the vigorous and painful American conversation about rights.
This past week has seen the federal government announce — with certainty but hardly with clarity — the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Then Secretary of Education DeVos announced her department’s intention to rethink Title IX.
Both issues — the protection of thousands of DACA individuals, including those in colleges across the country — and the anticipation of an end to Title IX, at least as we have come to know it — are inflected by the concept of entitlement.
For critics of the wide-reaching regulatory protection of individuals at risk for reasons personal, economic, or political, many such persons have been granted entitlements they do not deserve. In this sense, the word entitlement means “an unearned benefit.”
If you imagine yourself living in a zero-sum world of rights, granting an “unearned benefit” — or any benefit, for that matter — can only come at a loss of benefits to others.
For those in support of broader governmental protection, however, the 14th Amendment’s thorny equal-protection clause entitles everyone to those structures of support and defense.
Crudely, then, the history of usage yields a critical opposition of unwarranted entitlement (a bad thing) as opposed to a belief in everyone’s entitlement to rights, opportunities, and protections (a good thing).
Do these usages of entitlement name the same lexical object?
A legal eagle might turn to case law, but language history can tell us something, too.
The Oxford English Dictionary records the earliest usages of entitlement as referring to rewards within the military. The first example is from a British newspaper dated March 1782, and suggests that an entitlement of some sort would be a form of reward for military achievement.
In this 18th-century example, there’s no suggestion that entitlement means “receiving a title” (not everyone could become Duke of Marlborough), but simply a recognition of exceptional service to the Crown.
The OED has little further to tell us about entitlement until the mid-20th century. At that point, however, postwar examples seem to have developed into the two contentious senses over which we now struggle.
The OED marks 1945 as the first emergence of the sense of entitlement meaning the receipt of a “service, benefit, or payment granted to an eligible party through a government programme.” It was the end of World War II. The GI Bill (the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944) was an entitlement, but a different kind than an 18th-century military leader might have enjoyed for field successes in the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War. The GI Bill helped thousands of veterans get educations they would otherwise have been unable to afford, and the nation as a whole benefited from it.
Seven years later, in 1952 (coincidentally in the middle of another conflict, this time the Korean War), the dictionary provides its first citation for entitlement as meaning “the belief that one is inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment.”
The example is from a publication called Mental Hygiene. The source tells us a lot: entitlement was getting a new identity. Psychologists would develop theories of entitlement in a clinical sense, emphasizing the gap between real and self, between actual and imagined conditions and the role of the patient.
“Kids today are so entitled,” parents and nonparents have allegedly been complaining for generations (as a child I heard “spoiled,” and occasionally, “spoiled rotten”), which I think didn’t quite mean that kids were delusionally self-centered, but that they didn’t have to work as hard as their parents had.
Nonetheless, the kids-are-spoiled position isn’t that far off from disapproval of the needs of the working poor and other at-risk groups.
Small-government fiscal conservatives, traditionally opposed to social-support programs, decry what they understand entitlement to be. Did the newly available psychological understanding of the term — the sense the OED pegs to 1952 — provide a tool for arguing that social programs, as well as their supporters and beneficiaries, were trapped in a delusionary sense of values?
Whatever words mean is never just about what they mean, but how they have meant, to whom, and when. Which is why writing about language turns out to be just another way to write about pretty much everything that we’ve thought and put into words.
As to our entitlement — the word, I mean — it will continue to show up on the radar, and we’ll do well to listen to its usage and whose mouths are doing the using.
At the very least, we’re entitled to know just what people mean, or think they mean, when they use it.
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