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Reader PH feels that the meaning of entitlement has changed from "a legitimate claim" to "an illegitimate claim", and wonders when and how and why this happened. As an example of currrent usage, he points to Philip Rucker, “Romney sees choice between ‘entitlement society’ and ‘opportunity society’”, Washington Post 12/20/2011:

Mitt Romney framed the 2012 presidential election in a speech here Tuesday night as a choice between an “entitlement society” dependent on government welfare and an “opportunity society” that enables businesses to flourish.

The relevant sense of entitle is fairly old, according to the OED:

II. From title n. = ‘right to possession’. a. To furnish (a person) with a ‘title’ to an estate. Hence gen. to give (a person or thing) a rightful claim to a possession, privilege, designation, mode of treatment, etc. Const. to with n. or inf.; also simply. Now said almost exclusively of circumstances, qualities, or actions; formerly often of personal agents.

1530 J. Palsgrave Lesclarcissement 538/1 By what meanes is he entyteled unto these landes.

But the nominalization entitlement was rare until recently:

Entitlement doesn't even have an independent OED entry, and the sub-entry (under entitle v.) references a different meaning, glossed "a means of entitling; a designation, name", as in this passage from an 1890 novel:

The Emperor, in his light boat, remained standing during the passage to the shore that he might be seen by the people; and as he then appeared, helmed and in close-fitting cuirass, his arms in puffed sleeves of red silk, his legs, below a heavily embroidered narrow skirt, clothed in pliant chain mail intricately linked, his feet steel-shod, a purple cloak hanging lightly at the back from neck to heel, and spurred and magnificently sworded, and all agleam with jewels and gold, it must be conceded he justified his entitlement.

The earliest cluster of uses of entitlement meaning "(rightful) claim" that I've found is associated with post-WWII veterans' benefits, as in this 1947 Popular Mechanics ad:

Or this one from 1950:

But this seems to be the last as well as the first context where entitlement is commonly used in a positive or even neutral way. By the early 1960s, some business publications are using entitlement, referring to workers' benefits, in contexts where those benefits are viewed as anything but legitimate. Thus "THE LOOPHOLES: claims like these cost railroads $55 million a year", Railway Age 1/23/1961:

In the 1960s, psychoanalysts also start using entitled and entitlement with strongly negative connotations, resulting in the emergent term of art "narcissistic entitlement". Thus John Murray, “Narcissism and the Ego Ideal”, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 1964:

The fabric of the system is woven out of the warp of the regressive libidinal fantasy elements and the woof of the entitlement to the regressive world which the narcissistic attitudes provide.

John Blitzer and John Murray, “On the Transformation of Early Narcissism During Pregnancy”, The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 1964:

The case under discussion clearly illustrates how fantasies of narcissistic entitlement to primitive wish fulfilment may activate post-partum depression.

S. Levin, "A common type of marital incompatibility", Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 1969:

A husband's depression often arises in response to his wife's ego-syntonic patterns of rejecting his masculine position. It is proposed that these patterns of response in the wife, which are often denied by her, usually reflect her unconscious resistance to the mastery of shame affect. This resistance is typically supported by a pathological attitude of narcissistic entitlement which has been camouflaged through a variety of defenses, including the use of denial.

Gerald Adler & Dan Buie, “The misuses of confrontation with borderline patients”, International Journal of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Aug 1972:

Rules for the therapist to follow in treating his patient include: (a) Assess reality stress in the patient's current life; (b) Avoid breaking down needed defenses; (c) Avoid overstimulating the patient's wish for closeness; (d) Avoid overstimulating the patient's rage; (e) Avoid confrontation of narcissistic entitlement. It is suggested that various countertransference issues may lead to the misuse of confrontation.

Meanwhile, by the 1970s, the phrase entitlement programs is being used in its modern sense (defined benefits paid by the federal government) in discussions of the federal budget — and the connotations are by no means positive. These entitlements may or may not be legitimate (in the view of those using the term), but they are certainly a Big Problem. Thus Soma Golden, “Ash Hints at Need to Cut Social-Program Benefits”, NYT 8/24/1974:

One of President Ford’s economic advisors hinted broadly yesterday that the Government would not be able to balance the budget in the next fiscal year without reducing future benefits in some social programs legislated long ago.

“We must turn the uncontrollables into controllables,” Roy L. Ash, director of the Ofice of Management and Budget,, told a luncheon audience at the Bankers Club here.

In a telephone interview after the speech, Mr. Ash stressed that it would be “very, very difficult” to balance the budget in the 1976 fiscal year without cutting into some social programs.

He ruled out Social Security as a possible target. “We have no desire or intention” of cutting that one, he said. But, he added, “if we are going to do a thorough job of reviewing the budget, we have to take a look at the entitlement programs.”

Until now, the Government’s so-called “entitlement” programs — which include Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, veterans’ benefits, welfare and retirement — have been considered virtually untouchable by Federal budget-cutters. Benefit levels and eligibility requirements are specified in legislation and few politicians have wanted to risk disappointing voters who feel “entitled” to their share.

And the psychoanalysts' sense of entitlement is also getting into the newspapers. Thus Dee Wedemeyer, “Poor Little Rich Children? Study Shows They Often Are”, NYT 8/3/1978:

Robert Coles, the child psychiatrist who has written extensively about the children of the poor and working class, has completed a study on the children of the rich and upper middle class in which he records their developing a class and money consciousness, a sense of entitlement he calls "mind-boggling" and their struggles with the moral ambiguities of their wealth.

It's quickly adopted by public intellectuals, as in Anatole Broyard, “On Authority”, 1/2/1983:

Authority is a subject on which most Americans consider themselves philosophers. No other people talk so insistently about the nature and the limits of authority as it applies to various social groups. The word "right," in the sense of entitlement by authority, is constantly being expanded so that we even talk now of the right to sexual pleasure.

And the ends of the circle were hammered together in a 1992 Harper's Magazine essay by Shelby Steele, "The New Sovereignty". Steele uses the word entitlement 43 times in a 5344-word essay whose thesis is this:

[I]n the late 1960s, without much public debate but with many good intentions, America […] embarked upon one of the most dramatic social experiments in its history. The federal government, radically and officially, began to alter and expand the concept of entitlement in America. Rights to justice and to government benefits were henceforth to be extended not simply to individuals but to racial, ethnic, and other groups. […]

By the late Sixties, among a new set of black leaders, there had developed a presumption of collective entitlement (based on the redress of past grievances) that made blacks eligible for rights beyond those provided for in the Constitution, and thus beyond those afforded the nation's non-black citizens.

The basis of Gov. Romney's division between the "entitlement society" and the "opportunity society" is presumably the same as the one implied by his widely-cited remarks about the "47 percent":

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn't connect. And he'll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that's what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people—I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

But Gov. Romney's negatively-evaluated use of entitlement is nothing new — the word was used in essentially the same way in that 1961 Railway Age article, and in the psychoanalytic jargon of the 1960s and 1970s, and in Steele's 1992 essay.

[For additional discussion of the pop-psychology "Age of Entitlement" meme, see "Textual Narcissism", 7/13/2012. And for more on the politico-linguistic issues, take a look at Geoff Nunberg's 8/14/2012 Fresh Air piece — which I didn't see until after I'd written this post…]


  1. Nicholas Waller said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 6:53 am

    I most often see "entitlement" online these days as indeed a pejorative term, but not deployed by the likes of Romney against people claiming benefits, more often describing people such as Romney, and indeed me: those with white heterosexual male entitlement and privilege (a bit like the "mind-boggling" sense quoting Robert Coles in the NYT article in 1978, thugh this is not exclusively about the super-rich).

    This sense of entitlement is not something given by law or demanded through struggle but emerges from a sense of unmarked and unconscious normality.

    White heterosexual Western males generally feel they are objective, unbiased, baseline normal people; women, ethnic minorities, gays, foreigners etc are not, and as these groups get more prominence – powerful women, a black US president, gay marriage – "That’s when the sense of entitlement kicks in, as those who were once never even aware of their privilege realize that some of it has disappeared" ("Michael Kimmel on male entitlement, anger and invisible privilege", feministing.com)

    You see this even in a quip from Boris Johnson: "voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chance of driving a BMW 3", which seems to assume that normal voters are male and have wives (and women don't (or shouldn't) vote?)

    So I guess there's a battle of "entitlement" slagging-off going on: the entitled lazy poor claiming benefits, the entitled smug white claiming superiority.

    [(myl) Good point.

    I expected to see a historical shift in entitlement reference, from the legally enumerated rights of high-status people, to the defined benefits of workers and others. And we do see some of that in uses of e.g. "entitled to":

    But with respect to the word entitlement, the first stage isn't really out there, at least anywhere that I could find.]

  2. Victor Mair said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 6:58 am

    Nicholas Waller draws a very fine and much appreciated distinction.

    Somehow, whenever I see "entitlement" I think of "entanglement".

    Example from political history: "Russian-Turkish entanglements".

    But the latter word may also be used in social and personal relationships as well, though it is mainly employed in the sciences: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entanglement

  3. Rod Johnson said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 8:02 am

    I think of the adjective "entitled" as having two meanings, or at least two attitudes. "Entitled to X" (where X is an education, a living wage, food, etc.) feels neutral to me, but "entitled" simpliciter seems like it's only used pejoratively. So "today's students are so goddamn entitled" is the sort of thing my colleagues (not me, of course, I'm too nice) would say to indicate the idea that they don't have to earn their elite status, they just kind of deserve whatever they have. That sense seems like it arose some time in the last 30-40 years (but of course it will turn out to be older, I'm sure). The nominalized form "entitlement" would be colored by that meaning as well as the neutral one.

  4. Rod Johnson said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 8:08 am

    Reading what I just wrote, " so goddamn entitled" feels like it has its roots in an ironic or sarcastic use of the idea of legitimate entitlement, as suggested by the italics–seems like it needs that sarcastic intonation.

    Also, it occurs to me that some (again ironic) meaning seeps in from "titled," since Euro-style nobility are emblematic, for many Americans, of unearned and inexplicable privilege. So it's not a huge leap from "who do they think they are?"-type sentiments about, say, the royal family to similar sentiments about people who are (in the conservative imagination) livin' large without contributing anything. See also "welfare queen."

  5. Don Monroe said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 8:30 am

    The Declaration of Independence uses the word in the non-perjorative sense: "…to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them…."

  6. Anon said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 8:55 am

    I'm sure this new sense came from the use of "sense of entitlement", because you can have a sense of entitlement without actually being entitled.

    [(myl) Can you support your belief with any evidence? My own guess is that "feel entitled" is a better candidate, since "sense of entitlement" doesn't come into wide use until quite late:


  7. GeorgeW said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 9:57 am

    I think there is an implied 'unearned' and 'undeserved' as used by Romney.

  8. Geoff Nunberg said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 10:02 am

    In Ascent of the A-Word, I also note that the advent and spread of "sense of entitlement" parallels that of narcissism, inauthenticity, and—not surprisingly, when you think about it—asshole.

  9. MonkeyBoy said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 10:20 am

    the phrase entitlement programs is being used in its modern sense (defined benefits paid by the federal government)

    Many times I've seen a folk etymology that "entitlement" in this sense comes from legal terminology – the benefits or rights come from a specific part of a specific law, e.g. TITLE IV of Act 2233.

    I have no idea of how to search out examples that claim this etymology.

  10. JW Mason said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 10:33 am

    It's odd that you don't mention the specific meaning in legislative and budget contexts: an entitlement is a program with a fixed set of rules to qualify for benefits, so that actual expenditure depends on changes in the number of people who qualify (or in the cost of the benefit, where it is in kind rather than cash) as opposed to decisions made in the annual budget process.

    I am quite sure that the connotations of entitlement in this context come from the fact that it is a legislative term of art for programs like Medicaid, Social Security, EBT ("food stamps"), UI, etc., and not from its more generic usage.

  11. JW Mason said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 10:41 am

    For example, from the Congressional Budget Office's most recent Long-Term Budget Outlook:

    Two factors account for the projected increases in outlays relative to GDP for the government’s large entitlement programs: the aging of the population and the rapid growth of health care spending per capita

    You can find this neutral, technical usage in pretty much any budget document. I think those are the kinds of documents you should be looking at to find the origins of the term, not popular magazines and so on.

    [(myl) That's exactly the sense used in the 1974 newspaper article, which quotes the then-head of OMB as a source. I haven't found any substantially earlier budget documents that use the term in that way — can you provide a pointer to some? I thought that this usage might go back to the 1930s, but I couldn't find evidence of this.]

  12. Noni Mausa said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 10:48 am

    This is pure and simple inverting of meaning, a plague on our society since the 80s at least.

    The "entitlement" programs they denigrate are, in fact, services that its recipients are entitled to, and for the most part have already prepaid.

    Somehow the word is never applied to things like huge profits, market dominance, tax cuts for the wealthy, and huge stock options.

    To invert sky and earth in popular discourse seems to be the strategy of choice to befuddle people into digging themselves ever deeper into the mud, believing that just a little more hard work will get them airborne.


  13. M (was L) said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 11:24 am

    Simpler even than that, I think.

    If you oppose something, then simply naming it a perjoritive tone is a perjoritive usage. Compare George Bush 41's use of "Big-L Liberal" – a title that any actual liberal wears with pride; or again 41's purposefully mocking mispronunciation of "Saddam."

    It's namecalling, in that same elementary school manner used by a bully to mock a victim by using the victim's name in an arch and exagerrated manner.

    If you call a Communist a Communist, he thinks to himself "why yes I am" but if Joe McCarthy says it everybody (including the Communist) hears "dirty rat-bastard Commie pig."

    If you call a Capitalist a Capitalist, he thinks to himself "why yes I am" but if Karl Marx says it….

  14. JW Mason said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 11:25 am

    This is pure and simple inverting of meaning, a plague on our society since the 80s at least.The "entitlement" programs they denigrate

    This is just wrong. Entitlement has been the standard, neutral term for government benefits with fixed eligibility requirements for decades. It wasn't invented to denigrate anything.

    [(myl) This is certainly true if "decades" means "since the early to mid 1970s". Before that, I found "entitlement" used to refer to G.I. Bill benefits from the late 1940s onward; and in the 50s and 60s, occasional references to (private) pension benefits as "entitlements".

    Searching the Proquest Congressional archives, I find (for example) a budget item from 1871 called "Indefinite appropriation to repay claimants the overprice received from the sale of unclaimed merchandise on due proof of their property and entitlement" — but that's the only use of the term in the thousands of pages of congressional documents for that year, although at that point there must have been government benefits (e.g. military pensions) with fixed eligibility requirements.

    And searching in e.g. 1935, I find several examples where "entitlement" is similarly used to mean "the fact or status of being entitled (to some benefit)", but none where it refers to the benefit itself. Thus

    The act of May 19, 1924, made provision for the granting to persons serving in the military or naval forces, within a delimited period, of adjusted compensation […] Entitlement was not acquired by service in certain specified organizational units nor under prescribed conditions stated in the act.

    Can you provide some documentation of when entitlement started being used in U.S. government budget discussions in the sense noted for the 1974 quote? I'll be happy to learn that it was in 1950 or 1930 or 1800 — I figured it dated at least to the 1930s, but I haven't been able to turn up any convincing examples.]

  15. GeorgeW said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 12:17 pm

    @JW Mason : So, Romney is using the term as a "standard, neutral term?"

    I don't think so.

  16. Jon Weinberg said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 12:48 pm

    In terms of legal usage, I think a key shift came with the 1972 case of Board of Regents v. Roth. The Supreme Court there distinguished between government benefits that a person had a mere "expectation" of receiving, and those to which he had "a legitimate claim of entitlement" — because the law required the government to give the person the benefit if certain factual conditions are satisfied. It was in that sense, the Court continued, that welfare benefits in an earlier case "had a claim of entitlement to welfare payments." The Roth case made the "entitlement" locution central to procedural due process (the question whether the government had given people an adequate hearing before deciding that they were not entitled to benefits).

    [(myl) Thanks — that's very helpful. But there's another step, from entitlement = "the fact or status of being entitled to a benefit" to entitlement = "the benefit to which someone is entitled". This step is a natural one, and it's already there in that 1947 advertisement ("…when you invest your money or entitlement…"), so I've been surprised not to find it routinely from the beginning in discussions of e.g. social security benefits.

    And I wonder whether the post-1970s growth in the use of entitlement = "social safety net benefits" is really independent of the parallel (or slightly earlier?) development of the psychoanalytic jargon term entitlement = "unrenounced infantile omnipotence".]

  17. rootlesscosmo said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 12:59 pm

    "The woof of the entitlement" is such a wonderful phrase that it really should be adopted as the name of a rock band or a TV series or an indie movie.

  18. Rod Johnson said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 1:05 pm

    @J W Mason–I think you're finding disagreement where there is none. At least, I read Noni Mausa as saying yes, there is such a standard, neutral term, but Romney and his ilk are using it in an inverted sense.

  19. Geoff Nunberg said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 1:23 pm

    @JW Mason, etc. Technically, entitlements are just programs that provide benefits to people who qualify for them and which aren't subject to budgetary discretion. But the word also implied that the recipients had a moral right to the benefits. That was the principle that FDR was relying on, well before the term entitlement itself was commonly applied, when he famously explained why he preferred funding Social Security with a somewhat regressive payroll tax rather than drawing the money from the general fund, so that people would feel they had a moral and political right to their pensions: “With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.” And Bill Moyers reports that when he was LBJ's press secretary, LBH told him that he should respond to Republican opponents of Medicare: "By God, you can't treat grandma this way. She's entitled to it."

    Moreover the conflation of the psychological and economic senses of entitlement has colored the way the word is used in the latter context. Technically, it should apply to programs like agricultural price supports, but it's almost never used in that connection, nor does anyone other than economists use it for the hundreds of "tax entitlements" (or "hidden entitlements") that chiefly benefit middle- and upper-income taxpayers, like tuition tax credits, mortgage deductions, ESOP provisions, accelerated depreciation schedules, etc. though their status as budget "uncontrollables" is no different from that of direct subsidies. In other words, entitlement is almost never used purely with its full legal meaning.

  20. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 1:50 pm

    I'm not sure that this is the only "standard" or "neutral" meaning but one sometimes sees "entitlement programs" contrasted with programs that are means-tested. Your "entitlement" to Social Security retirement benefits, for example, does not have anything (with an asterisk having to do with certain tax issues . . .) to do with what your other financial resources happen be and thus how much you actually need the checks from SSA to avoid penury, whereas certain other government programs won't write you a check unless you meet certain criteria aimed at measuring how little you have in the way of other financial resources, and/or require you to affirmatively do other stuff (e.g. the continued receipt of unemployment benefits is in principle supposed to be conditioned on the recipient being actively engaged in looking for a job and thus making himself ineligible if he succeeds). In tight budgetary times, "entitlement" programs in this non-means-tested sense might be particularly vulnerable to pejorative treatment and/or to being conflated with the pop-psychology sense of an undeserved sense of entitlement. (There's a separate issue with Social Security where some people may think they're justifiably "entitled" because of the taxes they previously paid and they're just "getting their own money back." I'm not sure if there's a separate technical term for that sort of government program other than "Ponzi scheme.")

  21. Bloix said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 3:14 pm

    Not to rise to the troll bait, but no, Social Security is not a Ponzi scheme and people who claim that it is do not understand both Ponzi schemes and Social Security. Social Security is funded by a mandatory tax on American workers. As long as those workers are productive – and productivity has been increasing steadily since the founding of the Republic – there is no reason that current workers can't pay for the retirements of the prior generation indefinitely.

    The one exception to this is the baby boom generation, because the boomers were clearly going to be a much larger retirement cohort than the next generation. That problem was well understood 30 years ago and it was fixed by the Social Security Amendments of 1983 (signed into law by Saint Ronnie of blessed memory) which increased the tax on baby boomers so that they would pay both for their own retirements and those of the prior generation's. This created the Social Security surplus, which was designed to build up over three decades and then draw down over three decades. We're now into the draw-down phase, and that's what people are referring to when they say that Social Security is "going broke." But it's not going broke and it can't go broke as long as Americans continue to work and pay taxes. It is merely paying down the trust fund, as it was designed to do in 1983.

    And yes, people who are retiring now are "entitled" to their benefits because they paid into the system. They're entitled because part of the benefits are money that they personally paid in to fund the trust fund. And they're entitled because by working they made America's increasing prosperity and productivity possible, and they deserve a share of the prosperity they made.

    Some people – I'm not saying JW Brewer is one of them – think that people are entitled to whatever the Mitt Romney's of the world want to pay them and not a penny more. Once they can't work, if they weren't talented enough or pretty enough or lucky enough to get their hands on a million dollars or so, well then, they can eat cat food and sleep in doorways until they die of some disgusting untreated disease that they deserve to have for being too stupid to be rich.

    But outside of a handful of revolting plutocrats and their useful idiot minions, that's not how Americans think. We think that people are entitled to live like human beings. And it's a crying shame that a perfectly honorable word like entitlement has been turned into a curse by the noise machine that dominates our public discourse.

  22. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 3:18 pm

    Seems like in many sports media and avid fan critical assessments of high-profile, wealthy, professional athletes-gone-bad—-be it the alleged rape scenario involving Lakers star Kobe Bryant, footballer Michael Vick's dog-fighting scandal, the history of multiple reported incidents of sexual assault on women by boxer Mike Tyson, or even the huge (alleged) doping stir surrounding elite-cyclist Lance Armstrong—- often the notion of "a sense of entitlement" invariably surfaces, i.e., that these folks feel, because of their superstar-status, and concomitant wealth and fame, that they CAN somehow operate freely, much as they please, above the common fray; pretty much having license to push the envelop of basic morality, and what our greater society deems 'the norm', or just plain, fundamental human decency.

    @JW Mason. Respectfully, I don't think anyone here is arguing that institutionalized, codified, government sanctioned "entitlements" when they were first created, and up till the present day, were meant, to as you put it, "denigrate anything", and would contend that they are a fundamental right afforded to all Americans. Basically, a good thing.

    But I have to agree w/ several earlier commenters that Mitt Romney and his fellow less-government-meddling-mantra minions have put a definite negative twist on the notion of government "entitlements", most emphatically w/ his dissing 47% comment from that resurrected video of Mitt addressing a group of high-roller corporate heads. (His kind of people.)

    For the seemingly out-of-touch Romney, these "entitlements" are essentially government handouts to the growing lay-about, unmotivated, weak, grasping, sponging, underclass of Americans—and hence his clear negative spin on what, in reality, should be a positive take on an essential safety net for our disabled, sick, and elderly.

    Still, we can see where future sustained, optimal "entitlement" payments for all Americans poses a real, massive fiscal problem, down the road, as the huge 'boomer' generation enters its retirement years, w/ Medicare /Medicaid, and Social Security lingering as the big elephants in the room.

    Still, IMHO, no need for the GOP, and Romney & Co. to openly besmirch, and attack "entitlements", per se. Clearly both parties have to work together, w/ the best intentions, to somehow come to grips w/ the mounting financial burden of "entitlement" programs, going forward.

  23. M (was L) said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 4:11 pm

    The "inversion" of neutral is not perjorative.

    If "entitlement" is (or was) a neutral, legal, technical term then both supporters and opponents have moved equally far from neutrality, by the mere act of behaving so.

    Consider that for (I hope) all of us, "Nazi" is a heavily negative word. To the Nazis themselves, hardly so.

    That's a term that may never have been neutral, so not the best parallel.

  24. Joe Green said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 9:09 pm

    I must be missing something. You refer to the Railway Age article as using "entitlement" in a negative way. But it says simply "his entitlement under the … Act". I can only interpret that to mean "the amount to which he was legitimately entitled".

    [(myl) What you're missing is what I actually wrote: "By the early 1960s, some business publications are using entitlement, referring to workers' benefits, in contexts where those benefits are viewed as anything but legitimate." And you may also not have read the Railway Age article, which complains at length about "subsidized motherhood", "quitting can be fun", "the high cost of firing", and so on — one scandalous example after another, clearly intended to persuade the reader that the benefits in question are morally illegitimate, or perhaps to confirm the reader's prior impression that this is so.]

  25. John said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 9:49 pm

    As someone said earlier regarding "entitled", maybe "entitlement" on its own has a different meaning (closer to "false sense of entitlement") than "entitlement to X", which to my ear seems more neutral.

    "Your entitlement to a state pension is not in question."
    "I want to discuss my entitlement to claim on my policy."

    These are neutral statements — no-one would respond to the former "how dare you call me entitled?" But;

    "The welfare state has increased over the past decades – there is more entitlement among the poor today than ever before."

    To me, this implies a value judgement that they take the welfare state for granted, rather than a simple restatement of the first part of the sentence.

  26. Paulus said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 9:30 am

    Very interesting discussion. I agree with many that the meaning change of the word "entitled" is striking. "You're entitled" now often means "You feel entitled (but have no right to feel that way)". Interestingly, this is also possible with other adjectives. Compare the way "superior" used in a piece of West Wing dialogue:

    RITCHIE: You're what my friends call a superior sumbitch. You're an academic elitist and a snob.

    When the Republican politican in that episode calls President "superior", he means that he feels superior to others.

  27. Rodger C said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 11:53 am

    Another word like this is "righteous," which I hear more often than not to mean "self-righteous."

  28. Michael Cargal said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 7:17 pm

    Speaking as a recently retired San Diego County government middle manager, in that context "entitlement" means the law says you are automatically entitled to benefits if you meet certain criteria. Stage 1 child care (part of the welfare reform that is called CalWORKS in California) is an entitlement, meaning anybody with an active CalWORKS case is automatically eligible for subsidized child care. Stage 2 is an entitlement for 2 years after the CalWORKS case closes. Stage 3 is "funding available," which, in gov-speak, is the opposite of an entitlement; as many eligible people get the benefit as there is money to pay for. For an entitlement, if more people become eligible, you have to find money to pay for their benefit.

  29. Eric P Smith said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 8:16 pm

    Another such phrase is "the right to" (do something). I have just googled the phrase "I believe I have the right to", and it is clear that in most instances the speaker means "I believe I ought to have the right to".

  30. Jonathan said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 2:56 pm

    Well, Bloix, I don't want to rise to trolling either, but… what the hell. Your description of what is happening is accurate in one sense, but the Social Security Trust Fund is the sort of fund that would get us thrown in jail (like a Ponzi-ist) if a real person tried to do it. — it only exists as little pieces of paper with "Pay to the Order of the SSA" on it. The contributions made by baby boomers have in fact long ago been spent. This spend down must be financed, either by printing money or borrowing more of it.

    That said, you are correct that as long as contributions rise faster than outflows, it can continue forever. the same, of course, is true of a Ponzi scheme — it's really only a question of speed. Ponzi schemes collapse quickly because the unsustainablility of the growth rate shows up pretty quickly. *If* Social Security turns out to be unsustainable, it will be because it was, in effect, a slow-motion Ponzi scheme, whether intended that way or not.

    Just so I'm not *only* trolling, I think Romney is using the term "entitlement" descriptively, not pejoratively, but that the term has achieved such a negative patina in some circles that he is certainly utilizing the negative connotations to enhance his appeal to some groups.

  31. M (was L) said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 3:57 pm


    >I think Romney is using the
    >term "entitlement" descriptively, not pejoratively, but that the term
    >has achieved such a negative patina in some circles that he is
    >certainly utilizing the negative connotations to enhance his appeal
    >to some groups.

    If so, he wouldn't exactly be the first pol to speak with intentional, but plausibly deniable, ambiguity.

    But I don't know that I grasp the difference between perjorative speech, and descriptive speech calculated to be heard perjoratively.

  32. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 5:23 pm


    As a (sadly) lapsed sculptor having worked extensively in cast bronze, I take some mild umbrage in your descriptive phrase, "negative patina", in that, at least in my experience, a patina, either derived from say the natural oxidization of copper exposed to the elements over time (that typical greenish hue), or the deliberate application of an 'artificial' patina to a bronze sculpture, (w/ the use of strong heat and various metal oxides), to create a specific desired coloration—the word "patina" generally suggests an enhanced aesthetic perception of the patinated 'object', as we often hear in that familiar phrase "the patina of time". In other words, a desirable thing.

    I'm not claiming that your "negative patina" rises (or falls) to the status of an oxymoron, but still, I've rarely heard patina used to connote negativity, as such.

    OK. Admittedly, I'm being a bit of a petty peever here, in narrowing down the focus to actual 'physical' patinas, whereas you've used it in a more abstract form, if you will, referring to how the notion of government "entitlements" have come to take on a kind of negative taint, as you put it, "in some circles".

    The word "entitlements", in most recent political-speak these days has clearly become a highly emotionally charged, politically loaded one. A veritable political hot-potato.

    Mitt Romney, and his VP running mate, Paul Ryan, appear to view the huge Fed entitlement programs as almost a 'necessary evil', and would seem to have a more negative, as opposed to favorable perspective on how entitlement programs should be operated for the average American, than Obama and the Dems camp do.

    Both major parties acknowledge the potential fiscal unsustainability of these so-called 'social welfare' programs, over time, but how either one proposes to remedy, or at least ameliorate the increasingly dire situation, appear to be light-years apart.

    Hence, the apparent clear choice for voting Americans as they go to the polls Nov. 6th. Obviously, other key unresolved, pressing issues are at stake, as well. But it would appear that the ongoing debate over future entitlements is one of the paramount major sticking points in the run-up to election day… aside from the issue of the lingering imperative to grow the flagging economy, and get tens-of-thousands of unemployed, and under-employed folks back to work.

    The mind truly boggles!

  33. jf said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 8:14 pm

    @M (was L): I think there can be differences, depending on the level of cynicism involved and the level of intention..

    @ Alex McCrae: Thanks for the sculpture lesson. I was simply using patina as a term denoting a mere surface phenomenon. Surface phenomena can be deemed positively or negatively in an aesthetic sense — although we would expect a purposely applied patina by a competitent sculptor to be viewed positively. But an inadvertent patina could be, I think, viewed positively or negatively.

    I am responding simply because these two comments have a linguistic component, however tenuous.

  34. jf said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 8:15 pm

    And, of course, that's "competent."

  35. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 11:46 pm

    @ jf (aka Jonathan),

    I must admit, you offer a sound, convincing rebuttal, there.

    In revisiting, and mulling over my earlier post directed your way re/ your use of the phrase "negative patina" in reference to attitudes toward government sanctioned "entitlements", it dawned on me that in using my more concrete, literal sculpture example, that not ALL patinas are necessarily aesthetically pleasing; and it's really within the discerning eye of the beholder to judge the 'surface' treatment either positively, or negatively; pleasing….or not-so-much so

    The same could be said for your descriptive phrase "negative patina"— as you put it, as merely identifying a negative surface phenomenon be it "entitlements", (or whatever), which could just as easily be flipped w/ its corollary, a "positive patina". For instance, Pres. Obama would likely put a 'positive patina' on Federal entitlements.

    Bottom-line, I have no objections to your using "negative patina". (As if you needed my say so. HA!) It retrospect, it does work well in the context you used it. (I was clearly off-base, earlier.)

    We often hear the word "spin" bandied about in mainstream media political analysis, and punditry re/ breaking news, or pivotal events ; be it of the negative, positive, or neutral variety. Seems like "spin" is kind of akin to your earlier use of patina, suggesting a definite twist, or surface 'coloration', not apparent at first blush.

    Moving right along.

    Ain't it weird how that pesky little phantom "it" just goes and randomly insinuates itself into perfectly spelled words.

    "Competent", it is, jf.

  36. Assorted links said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 10:32 am

    […] 5. How the word "entitlement" became a negative. […]

  37. practik said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 2:40 pm

    I'm "Reader PH," and I approve (of) this blog post :-) Thanks for the digging, MYL!

    I really did suggest that the definition of "entitlement" has changed, but in hindsight I wonder whether it would've been more accurate of me to suggest that that definition has expanded to include both positive and negative senses, depending on context and speaker's intent. As a few commenters (JW Mason, Michael Cargal) have pointed out, in the limited context of American bureaucratese it's pretty neutral.

    But of course, now that the word is spending so much time out in the wider world of news and political debate, it's easy for a politician to put a negative spin on "entitlement" (in the sense of a government-administered benefit) by drawing on the connotations of "entitlement" (in the sense of childish egotism). Interesting that those connotations have been around for 50 years or so already.

  38. Jim said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 2:58 pm

    "But there's another step, from entitlement = "the fact or status of being entitled to a benefit" to entitlement = "the benefit to which someone is entitled".

    If there is not already a name for this type of derivation, someone should coin one. This seems to me to the same process as naming a dish after the vessel it is cooked in e.g. 'casserole' and 'casserole' or hotpot or any numer of other similar examples. It is also what is going on in the extension in meaning from 'change' to 'change' – "this organization is good at change" versus "Well, that's a change."

  39. Ted said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 7:54 pm

    @myl: I think the evolution is noun → noun used as modifier → modifier used as shorthand for NP.

    So: originally there are legal entitlements. A program is adopted under which people meeting specified criteria are entitled to claim beneifts; this is an entitlement program (as distinct from, say, a discretionary program), and benefits under the program are, accordingly, entitlement benefits or entitlement payments. In debates over budget policy, certain people are proposing reductions in entitlement payments or entitlement programs, and since tne noun is clear from context ("which programs should we cut?" or "how do we reduce spending?"), they refer to the programs and/or payments simply as entitlements.

    @Jim: I don't think "casserole" works the same way. Originally, it neant a type of dish. By synechdoche, it came to refer also to food cooked in such a dish. But it didn't go through the intermediate step — there was never any "casserole stew," for example.

    A better analogy might be to a "pickup" as a type of vehicle.

  40. Troy S. said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 8:23 pm

    I believe it was in one of Malcolm Gladwell's books that I read about differences in how wealthy and poor parents teach their children to respect authority. Wealthy parents teach their kids a sense of entitlement, so, for example, they feel free to ask the doctor why he's listening to your chest or prescribing a certain medication. This sort of entitlement is viewed as a virtue by the author, although it may annoy authority figures.

  41. Audrey W. said,

    October 11, 2012 @ 12:01 pm

    "Entitled" is also used extensively among retail employees in online discussions, mostly about customers who act like they deserve the finest food and merchandise at the lowest prices with deferential service from the employees no matter what the customer says or does or where the customer is.

    The employees are more likely to complain about entitled customers if the restaurant or store is inexpensive. If a customer paying to stay at the Ritz, the employees do not consider a customer who expects five-star service to be entitled. If a customer is paying to stay at Motel 6, the employees do consider customers who expect five-star service to be entitled.

    See below:

  42. Audrey W. said,

    October 11, 2012 @ 12:01 pm

    Sorry, I can't use TinyURL on this right now – I'm on my lunch break, and the work computers won't let me.

  43. Bloix said,

    October 11, 2012 @ 1:46 pm

    Just got off the phone with a recruiter who mentioned in passing that grads just entering the workforce "are a little more entitled these days" than ten years ago.

    Not that they "feel a little more entitled." They "are a little more entitled."

    That's not a usage I would use but it seems that it's become pretty standard.

  44. Craig said,

    October 24, 2012 @ 10:24 am

    There's a famous (well, famous in Canada) example of this semantic shift in action.

    The background is that a former Liberal MP, David Dingwall, was forced out of his post-political job as head of the Royal Canadian Mint in 2005, amid allegations (which were never fully substantiated) of improper spending. The case went to arbitration, during which Dingwall asserted, in response to a question about the spending, that he was — wait for it — "entitled to my entitlements".

    Now, of course, strictly on the face of it there was nothing inherently wrong with what he said. Artlessly bureaucratic though it may have been, it was certainly not an objectively untrue statement; they're called entitlements because the people receiving them are entitled to them (in the legal sense), after all.

    However, it was seized upon by the opposition Conservatives as evidence that the Liberal Party was mired in a culture of arrogance and entitlement (in the pejorative sense).

  45. Stanley said,

    December 11, 2012 @ 5:18 pm

    On the off chance that someone comes by browsing, or this topic is revisited — Robert Samuelson credits Norm Ornstein of AEI, who found the term in the 1974 budget act and gave it to Reagan as a "broader and more neutral term" than Social Security (Samuelson, Robert [1997] _The Good Life and its Discontents: The American Dream in the Age of Entitlement_ NY: Random House ) (http://bit.ly/ZcakpD). Samuelson also notes the lack of common usage prior to this time.

    In this sense, "entitlement" has as very specific budget meaning but not really anything more. From the "Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974" (Public Law 93-344) , Sec. 3(9)(A) "The term 'entitlement authority' means— (A) the authority to make payments (including loans and grants), the budget authority for which is not provided for in advance by Appropriation Acts, to any person or government if, under the provisions of the law containing that authority, the United States is obligated to make such payments to persons or governments who meet the requirements established by that law; and (B) the food stamp program." (http://1.usa.gov/Zc3oZL)

    What this means is that "Entitlements do not specify spending totals. Total spending under these programs is simply the sum of legislatively mandated payments applied for by recipients. Totals are not only not directly chosen, but they can also be known only in retrospect….[T]he government's obligations are created in the authorizing law. The appropriations committees cannot erase those obligations." (http://bit.ly/RnGgFI)

    c.f. CBO description of budgeting http://bit.ly/Zc6kWj)

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