Skip to main content
warren clements

Newspapers regularly refer to someone "earning" money. Tuesday's Globe and Mail said Canadian employees of Aveos "earned between $1,750 and $5,500 a month" in 2010. Another story reported a finding that a man "acted 'contrary to the public interest' when he and his wife earned a profit of almost $1-million (U.S.) after buying shares" of a company.

Reader Cynthia Martin recently took issue with the casual bandying about of the verb. "Oh you word maven, please end the use of 'earn' when talking about guys 'earning' $36-million. That should be 'making.' Daycare workers earn their measly $24,000."

The argument that tycoons who make $36-million do not work thousands of times harder than cleaners who spend eight hours scrubbing toilets and mopping floors may draw arguments or embarrassment from the tycoons and weary nods from cleaners. The social-democratic math holds that nobody can "earn" – that is, deserve by dint of hard work – $35.98-million more than someone else who is working as hard as humanly possible.

This is the problem in a nutshell: that "earn" wears two hats. Wearing one hat, it is a simple synonym for (to quote Collins Paperback Thesaurus) "bring in, collect, draw, gain, get, gross, make." By that reckoning, a billionaire earns his millions the same way a wage slave earns $10 an hour; he collects it, end of story. That's why, when the March 12 Saturday Crossword in this newspaper set the clue "bring in," the answer was "earn."

Wearing the other hat, however, "earn" plays favourites. It means (to cite the second batch of synonyms in Collins) "be entitled to, be worthy of, deserve, merit, rate, warrant, win."

Read that way, the billionaire deserves his millions in the same way that a low-paid employee deserves a tiny fraction of those millions. Cue the resulting defences (what the market will bear, responsibility for investors' millions and the employment of many thousands, karma, I didn't invent this system, etc.) and the stinging critique of capitalism.

The bifurcation of "earn" has been there from the word's earliest days in Old English (as earnian), derived from an Old Germanic root referring to field labour or a harvest. The same root produced the Old English word esne, labourer or serf.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that even in 688 the word meant "to render an equivalent in labour or services for (wages); hence, to obtain or deserve (money, praise, any advantage) as the reward of labour." Obtain on one side, deserve on the other.

Earn has come in handy as a euphemism. In White Knights and Poison Pills: A Cynic's Dictionary of Business Jargon, David Olive wrote that the term earnings, "designed to cast the concept of profit in a more respectable light, came into widespread use in the 1950s, when the 'profit motive' was under routine attack from postwar socialists."

In the Feb. 10-23 issue of Britain's Private Eye magazine, letter-writer Michael Denholm cast a jaundiced eye at London's financial district. A Private Eye columnist had used the words 'earns,' 'paid' and 'collects' "as descriptions of the swag grabbed by corporate crooks in the City. I prefer the all-embracing 'trousered' describing municipal crooks in [the magazine's column]Rotten Boroughs," Denholm wrote.

(The British verb "trouser," common in slang since the late 1890s, means to pocket something, often on the sly.)

But Denholm was too quick to rule out "earn" as a signal of crookedness. The verb has since at least the 1960s been British underworld slang for enjoying a dishonest payday from a crime. The genial petty crook played by George Cole on the 1980s TV series Minder was forever referring to one of his legally dubious schemes as a "nice little earner."

Thus, those who don't like "earn" as a handy synonym for makes, brings in and hauls down are free to read it with Minder's pejorative connotation in mind. English is infinitely adaptable.