The harmonics of 'entitlement'

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A lot of the most effective political keywords derive their force from a maneuver akin to what H. W. Fowler called "legerdemain with two senses," which enables you to slip from one idea to another without ever letting on that you’ve changed the subject. Values oscillates between mores (which vary from one group to another) and morals (of which some people have more than others do). The polemical uses of elite blend power (as in the industrial elite) and pretension (as in the names of bakeries and florists). Bias suggests both a disposition and an activity (as in housing bias), and ownership society conveys both material possession and having a stake in something.

And then there's entitlement, one of the seven words and phrases that the administration has instructed policy analysts at the Center for Disease Control to avoid in budget documents, presumably in an effort, as Mark put it in an earlier post, to create "a safe space where [congresspersons'] delicate sensibilities will not be affronted by such politically incorrect words and phrases." Though it's unlikely that the ideocrats who came up with the list thought it through carefully, I can see why this would lead them to discourage the use of items like diversity. But the inclusion of entitlement on the list is curious, since the right has been at pains over the years to bend that word to their own purposes.

I did a Fresh Air piece on entitlement back in 2012, when Romney's selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate opened up the issue of "entitlement spending."  Unlike most other political keywords, the polysemy from which this one profits is purely fortuitous. As I noted in that piece:

One sense of the word was an obscure political legalism until the advent of the Great Society programs that some economists called “uncontrollables.” Technically, entitlements are just programs that provide benefits that aren’t subject to budgetary discretion. But the word also implied that the recipients had a moral right to the benefits. As LBJ said in justifying Medicare: “By God, you can’t treat grandma this way. She’s entitled to it."

The negative connotations of the word arose in a another, rather distant corner of the language, when psychologists began to use a different notion of entitlement as a diagnostic for narcissism. Both those words entered everyday usage in the late 1970s, with a big boost from Christopher Lasch’s 1979 bestseller The Culture of Narcissism, an indictment of the pathological self-absorption of American life. By the early eighties, you no longer had to preface “sense of entitlement” with “unwarranted” or “bloated.” That was implicit in the word entitlement itself, which had become the epithet of choice whenever you wanted to scold the baby boomers for their superficiality and selfishness….

But it’s only when critics get to the role of government that the two meanings of entitlement start to seep into each other…. When conservatives fulminate about the cost of government entitlements, there’s often an implicit modifier “unearned” lurking in the background. And that in turn makes it easier to think of those programs as the cause of a wider social malaise: they create a “culture of dependency,” or a class of “takers,” which is basically what the Victorians called the undeserving poor.

That isn’t a new argument. The early opponents of Social Security charged that it would discourage individual thrift and reduce Americans to the level of Europeans. But now the language itself helps make the argument by using the same word for the political cause and the cultural effects. You can deplore “the entitlement society” without actually having to say whether you mean the social or political sense of the word, or even acknowledging that there’s any difference. It’s a strategic rewriting of linguistic history, as if we call the programs benefits simply because people feel entitled to them.

But to make that linguistic fusion work, you have to bend the meanings of the words to fit. When people rail about the cost of government entitlements, they’re thinking of social benefit programs like Medicare, not the price supports or the tax breaks that some economists call hidden entitlements.

Entitlements is back in the headlines now that the Republicans are looking for ways to make up for the revenues to be lost in the tax bill. "We're going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit," Ryan said just last week, adding, "Frankly, it's the health care entitlements that are the big drivers of our debt… that's really where the problem lies, fiscally speaking." Others extend "entitlement reform" to restructuring social security and other programs. Leaving aside the policy implications of these moves, which are beyond the modest purview of Language Log, it's clear that entitlement is still doing exactly the kind of rhetorical work for Republicans that it was doing in the Reagan era. So why is it suddenly verbum non gratum at the CDC?


  1. Michael Watts said,

    December 18, 2017 @ 2:07 am

    Unlike most other political keywords, the polysemy from which this one profits is purely fortuitous.

    It looks like one sense derives from people actually being entitled to things, and one derives from people believing or acting as if they are entitled to things. I'd suspect polysemy like this occurs at rates well above chance.

    This strikes me as a very close parallel to what happened with "condescending", which was a compliment in Jane Austen novels that used it to describe nobles who were willing to talk to those lesser than themselves, and is an insult in modern America where it describes people who talk as if you are lesser than they are.

  2. Breffni said,

    December 18, 2017 @ 4:35 am

    Entitlement seems less like condescending than like temper meaning "bad temper", mood for "bad mood", attitude for "defiant attitude", etc. In all those cases, a neutral word that originally required further specification ("sweet temper, choleric temper…") has absorbed a negative semantic element, presumably from frequent use in contexts where the negative element is implicit ("I've heard a lot about his temper", "You need to lose that attitude"). Similarly for character and personality, but they've gone in the opposite direction. But I don't think there was ever any distinction between good condescension and bad condescension; what's changed is the social evaluation of condescension.

  3. Breffni said,

    December 18, 2017 @ 4:46 am

    Actually, attitude has undergone both kinds of change: from neutral to negative through incorporation of an implicit negative (attitude = "pugnacious attitude") and from negative to positive through re-evaluation: from "pugnacious is bad" ("no wonder the saleswoman had an attitude") to "pugnacious is good" ("in this job you gotta have attitude") (quotes from OED).

  4. Pflaumbaum said,

    December 18, 2017 @ 5:16 am

    Back in 2011, I went on holiday with some of my extended family. It was pretty luxurious, and mostly paid for by my mother's partner. This was just after the riots across English cities, and I'll never forget one of his family sitting back at the lunch table and opining of the urban poor, "Look, the trouble with these people is they're so bloody entitled." He said this while literally being served lobster in an exclusive yacht club on a Greek island, paid for by somebody else.

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 18, 2017 @ 8:20 am

    The original technical budgetary sense seems to mean something like "not requiring annual approval," which pretty naturally flows, just as an empirical description of the resultant political process, into "not requiring annual renewed justification to those whose approval would otherwise be required" and thus "not requiring ongoing willingness to compromise/negotiate with others who may have conflicting needs and/or priorities of their own," both of which seem pretty congruent with the negative sense claimed to be popularized by Lasch.

  6. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    December 18, 2017 @ 8:38 am

    Is the argument that this polysemous, ambiguous use of entitlement is peculiar to Republicans? If so, then I can see why a Republican ban on its use would be surprising. However, maybe Democrats also exploit the dual meaning of entitlement for their own purposes and this prompted the ban. Is it possible that many liberals think that programs like Social Security are not merely entitlements in the old, legalistic sense (i.e. not subject to budgetary discretion) but also in the new sense (i.e. recipients are morally entitled to the benefits), and that this second use annoys those who have different values?

  7. Grover Jones said,

    December 18, 2017 @ 9:39 am

    Good thought, Jonathan. It should also be pointed out that most beneficiaries will receive far more than they paid in. Right there is a combination: they are somewhat "entitled" (older meaning) in that they have contributed something, but also "entitled" (newer meaning) in that they are receiving more than they contributed, even adjusting for inflation, etc.

    In its original sense, entitlement had nothing to do with the fact that employees had paid in; the term covers veterans' benefits, disability benefits, etc. What some call "hidden entitlements" or "tax expenditures" include the mortgage interest deduction and the exclusion of employer-provided health services. Like Social Security, these "confer direct benefits automatically, require no advance appropriation under the law, and they have the same impact on the federal budget deficit that direct expenditures do," as the AARP describes them. It's only via contamination by the psychological sense of the word that it connotes social security and medicare more than other programs.

  8. bedwetter said,

    December 18, 2017 @ 9:44 am

    Maybe it's just me, or the idiosyncratic internet bubble I inhabit, but while say five years ago I would have primarily associated 'entitlement' with a hostile critique of the 'undeserving poors', these days whenever I see the word 'entitlement', it usually seems to be in the context of 'white privilege'. Which is to say that perhaps the right are not the only political group to have been at pains over the years to bend that word to their own purposes.

  9. empty said,

    December 18, 2017 @ 11:51 am

    On Wikipedia someone has made some kind of effort to gather the senses together and make sense of them:

    I think that a disambiguation page might be a better idea.

  10. ~flow said,

    December 18, 2017 @ 1:09 pm

    @Grover Jones Isn't that the original thought of the insurance after all? That everyone agrees to put aside a bit so that when disaster strikes a certain amount of the sum of contributions can be used to help out those in need? That, at least, seems to have been the thinking behind early movements to build communal security as a backup against hail, fire, and floods; it practically entails you will / should / can expect to get more than you paid in and also that you never want to be at the receiving end.

  11. SlideSF said,

    December 18, 2017 @ 1:50 pm

    “… to reduce Americans to the level of Europeans.” The horror!

    GN: This was in the mid-1930s, mind you. Republicans associated the program with the type of European social insurance programs initiated by Bismarck ("Call it socialism or whatever you like. It is the same to me"), where payments were made from the general fund; FDR decided that a separate payroll tax, while more regressive than the European systems, would give recipients a sense of ownership and discourage opponents from repealing the program.

  12. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    December 18, 2017 @ 2:12 pm


    The comparison was being made back in the 1930s when SS was being debated so you'd need data on European living standards of that period.

  13. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    December 18, 2017 @ 3:20 pm

    Maybe this word ban didn't actually happen?

  14. SlideSF said,

    December 18, 2017 @ 3:30 pm

    To those that mentioned that I was comparing today’s statistics to a quote from the 1930s. Yes, I realize. It was ironically meant as an indication of the way meanings change over time.

  15. Lester said,

    December 18, 2017 @ 8:27 pm

    @Breffni: if I can believe the people who comment on crosswords, the same thing has happened to "odor" as to "temper" and the other words you note.

  16. Paul Kay said,

    December 19, 2017 @ 1:14 am

    Jonathan Gress-Wright: "Maybe this word ban didn't actually happen?" Setting aside the snarky question mark, you're right. According to the source you link to, relevant officials say that these words were suggested to budget preparers as words to avoid because they might turn off Republican Congresspeople. So from the point of view of the social value of censorship in official communications — here comes my snarky question mark — how much worse would be a straight-out ban than an encouragement to self-censor?

  17. Ed M said,

    December 19, 2017 @ 5:02 am

    The U.S. Senate wrote:

    "entitlement – A Federal program or provision of law that requires payments to any person or unit of government that meets the eligibility criteria established by law. Entitlements constitute a binding obligation on the part of the Federal Government, and eligible recipients have legal recourse if the obligation is not fulfilled. Social Security and veterans' compensation and pensions are examples of entitlement programs"

  18. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    December 19, 2017 @ 6:42 pm


    If it's not a ban, don't call it a ban.

    GN: To say baldly that "this word ban didn't actually happen" implies that there's nothing for anybody to get exercised about. I believe Paul's point is that the fact that the directive isn't technically a ban but only a suggestion from on high doesn't extenuate it, just makes it weaselier. As the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute is quoted as saying in the article you cite:

    So of course the administration and its defenders are going to argue that this is only about what goes into the budget. But we know that the signal to the agency is much stronger than that. And it’s going to change behavior of people who work there. And that’s much more damaging than any direct censorship.

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 20, 2017 @ 11:26 am

    The "suggestion" here, however heavy-handed, seems akin to advice given to a junior academic writing a grant proposal to a non-government prospective funding source (a foundation or whatever) to avoid certain common jargony phrases that it is thought may trigger a negative pet-peeve reaction from the particular prospective funding source. Ask for the same thing but phrase it in a way likely to elicit a more positive reaction given the particular quirks and peeves of the relevant audience, would be the advice. Now, maybe the ultimate audience here (key members of Congress on appropriations subcommittees?) have peeves and triggers that are objectively dumb, or maybe the advice is so overcautious as to be empirically inaccurate (i.e. not giving the ultimate audience appropriate credit for actually being less dumb and easily-triggered than the advice assumes). Both of those, or some combination, seem plausible. But in the general scheme of things, anyone who views writing a request for someone else to give them money as an opportunity for unfettered self-expression in which it would be problematic "self-censorship" to think carefully about what phrasing is and isn't likely to be effective rather than counterproductive with the intended audience isn't going to do all that well at getting funded compared to someone else who is asking for comparable funding for comparable work but knows how to market their proposal successfully to whoever controls the checkbook.

  20. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    December 20, 2017 @ 3:18 pm

    @J. M. Brewer:

    Is it possible the agencies feel so entitled to funding that don't want to bother monitoring their own language? :D

  21. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 20, 2017 @ 6:12 pm

    J G-W. I assume the average NIH staff member quite plausibly thinks he or she knows a lot more about sensible funding priorities for medical research than the average voter or the average officeholder those voters in their uncertain wisdom put into office. Being dependent on the whims of people who know less about your specialty than you is irksome to pretty much anyone, but if you're going to work for the government in a society that is actually democratic (i.e. those on the government payroll really are accountable to the general mass of the citizens through their elected representatives) it's part of the deal. But there's hopefully not just a political point here but some sociolinguistic ones, about the dangers of blithely assuming that your ingroup jargon will be taken by others the way you and your fellow ingroup members would take it and/or the danger of assuming that the burden of ensuring effective communication between different subcultures with their own internal linguistic quirks ought to be dealt with by the other guys rather than by you.

  22. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 20, 2017 @ 6:16 pm

    (for "NIH" read "CDC" or whatever)

  23. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    December 20, 2017 @ 7:38 pm

    Actually I was just playing on the word "entitled" as a lame joke. I understand your points, though. Successful communication is indeed generally requires conversational cooperation from both sides.

  24. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    December 20, 2017 @ 7:39 pm

    Sorry for the typo; should have left out "is".

  25. Philip Taylor said,

    December 21, 2017 @ 6:43 am

    I am not convinced that "entitlement" has any negative connotations in British English, any more than does (e.g.,) "moist" — I wonder whether these might be peculiarly American phenomena ?

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