How ‘entitlement’ and ‘privilege’ became epithets

Words can be used negatively, positively, or neutrally, depending on their context. Sorting out which way the meaning is intended, though, is another kettle of fraught, especially when connotations take hold.

Take “privilege.”

“I have the privilege of presenting this award” uses “privilege” as a positive, an honor bestowed upon someone. Attorney-client “privilege” is a neutral right, closer to the Latin roots of “privilege,” words for “private” and “law.”

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Then there is the weaponized “privilege,” the belief by one group that it or another has special “entitlements.” This “privilege” is nearly always negative, used to disparage one group for the advantages they are said to enjoy. The Oxford English Dictionary defines that kind of “privilege” as “the existence of economic and social privileges associated with rank or status; the fact of there being such privileges within a society.” Particularly on some college campuses, the concept of “privilege” is usually built around race, where people are asked to examine their “privilege,” or any advantages they might have based on their race.

As for “entitlement,” let’s start with the verb form, “entitle.” Merriam-Webster’s entry for “entitle” uses two examples that are neutral:

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He entitled his book “My Life on Mars.”

The card entitles my grandmother to the discount for senior citizens.

One is simply a title; the other is a discount offered to people by virtue of their age. Not much angst there.

But the “Recent Examples From the Web” section includes a loaded “entitled”:

Some of these behaviors betray perpetrators’ feelings of (entitled) attraction, while others expose more clearly the long-simmering resentment that our society (male and otherwise) holds towards plus-size people.

Here, “entitled” is being used as a negative, as a dig against people who feel that by virtue of  being male, in this case, they are somehow deserving of the right to catcall women.

“Entitled” means “to furnish with proper grounds for seeking or claiming something,” M-W says, which doesn’t get at common connotations for “entitled” today. M-W does take that into account in a usage note: “Since the 20th century, entitled has had the additional meaning of ‘believing oneself to be inherently deserving of certain privileges or special treatment’ (as well as the disparaging meaning of ‘acting spoiled and self-important.’)” The OED  calls that meaning “chiefly North American.” Since few people would claim to be “entitled,” since it would make them seem “spoiled and self-important,” the use of “entitled” is almost always used by someone who derides that “entitlement.”

“Entitled” and its noun form, “entitlement,” have also been weaponized by partisan politics, of the legislative and identity kind. Government offers all sorts of “entitlements,” like Social Security, unemployment compensation, supplementary food purchase programs, etc. That use of “entitlements” traces to 1945 and is also “chiefly North American,” the OED says. (It was first used in reference to the G.I. Bill.) “Entitlements” was simply their, um, title. But now, people opposing “entitlements” often equate them with government giveaways to freeloaders or undeserving people.

In racial politics, too, “entitlement” has taken on a negative cast. In 2013, Justice Antonin Scalia called the extension of parts of the Voting Rights Act “perpetration of racial entitlement.” As The New Yorker wrote at the time, “Scalia is saying, in effect, that the Voting Rights Act gave a gift—a ‘racial entitlement’—to black people, and the result has been that ‘the normal political processes’ don’t work.” More often, it is white people who are said to have the “entitlement” if they act in ways seen as oppressing people of color.

“Entitlement” is all but “skunked,” meaning it will likely be seen with its negative connotation, even if it is not so intended.

Both “privilege” and “entitlement” have uses, but they can also be wielded in ways that hurt, intentionally or not. Both are labels, and regular readers know what we say about labels: rather than use them, explain what is meant by the term. Not using either term as a label or epithet could go a long way toward restoring some neutrality to both words. It would be a privilege to do so.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.