A couple of weeks ago we ended up discussing the term “entitled” in the comments. This was part of a side discussion regarding “entitled gamers”. Someone noted that entitled seems to be its own opposite. As in:
- This fender bender is covered by your auto insurance, therefore you’re entitled to money from the insurance company. (You really do deserve the money.)
- You’re an entitled gamer because you’re demanding the developer add additional features that were never promised. (You’re confusing something you want with something you deserve.)
So which is it? Does entitled mean you deserve something, or does it mean you’re acting like you deserve something when you don’t? The answer, of course, is “it depends”, because language is obnoxiously fluid and there’s nothing to stop people from bending words until our language is confused.
I find the mutation of “entitled” to be interesting because I saw it happen during my lifetime. I saw the usage of the word slip subtly over the years. Each individual evolutionary step made sense, but at the end we’d ruined a word.
This process is nothing new, of course. Mental Floss has a list of 25 words that are their own opposites. I’d be very surprised if those were the only words with this problem. Some of the examples are:
- Dust: If you’re dusting furniture, then you’re removing dust. If you’re dusting something with powdered sugar then you’re adding dust.
- Seed: If you seed a field, you’re adding seeds. If you seed grapes, then you’re removing them.
When I was young, “entitled” only meant “deserving”.
“He is entitled to a refund.”
Of course, we need to be able to talk about situations where people disagree. Maybe the customer thinks they should be able to get a refund, but the warranty period is long over. The item maybe didn’t live as long as you’d expect, but it lived longer than was promised.
“He’s acting like he’s entitled to a refund.”
So far, so good. Entitled still means “deserving”, and this guy isn’t deservingAt least, according to the letter of the law / contract. If you want to launch a class-action lawsuit against my hypothetical company that’s your business..
Of course, people that behave this way are not rare. If you work in the restaurant business, then you’ll encounter lots of people who act like they’re entitled to things they aren’t. Over time, the phrase got shortened.
“This guy is acting entitled.”
Now we come to the tricky bit. If you’re familiar with the original meaning of the word, then this still makes sense. He’s acting entitled, but he isn’t. However, if you’re a young person and you’re learning words through context, then this is somewhat ambiguous. You might draw the conclusion that “entitled” is the word we use for his behavior. You might think that these statements are equivalent:
This guy is acting hostile.
This guy is acting confused.
This guy is acting entitled.
They seem the same to your young and impressionable ears, but the first two statements are different from the third. The first guy really is hostile. The second really is confused. The third is behaving as if he’s entitled… but he isn’t. The word “acting” is probably part of the problem here, since it can mean roughly “expressing” or “pretending”.
Over time, a group of young people grow up thinking that entitled is the word we use to describe the behavior of someone who wrongly believes they deserve something. And then we come to the modern day…
“That guy is entitled.”
…and we can’t tell if he’s actually entitled or acting entitled.
When you’re young you sort of take these self-opposite words for granted. We laugh about how dumb and confusing our language is, but it feels like the confusing words have always been there. It’s been interesting to see a new word added to the collection in my lifetime.
I was pretty sure the word “literally” was about to meet the same fate, but I notice its usage has fallen off over the last couple of years. It’s been ages since I saw a young person telling someone they “literally died laughing”. Maybe this word was saved? I don’t know.
It’s a shame that entitled has this dual meaning now. It really does cause a lot of pointless arguments.
 At least, according to the letter of the law / contract. If you want to launch a class-action lawsuit against my hypothetical company that’s your business.
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