The insults we use say a great deal about our times, and none more so than a certain deadly adjective that is so popular now in London it is bordering on cliché status. I am talking about the word “entitled”.
In common parlance, this word now denotes a war-like challenge to individuals whose swagger and confidence suggest they believe they have a natural claim and a right to all that is best in the world. The issuer of the insult implies that “entitled” individuals nurse these beliefs erroneously. They might be descended from aristocratic stock and, having been informed by school Greek class that the “aristos” part of “aristocracy” means “the best”, taken it all a bit too literally. They might have soaring ambition, quite unrelated to their talent, and confidence and roast beef juices coursing through their veins instead of blood. Yet they are, the issuer of the insult counters, in reality, undeserving. Privilege may have raised them but there are no foundations.
Henry James in The Bostonians (1886) has a character who believes that there are two sorts of people in the world: those who take life easy and those who take life hard. The classic “entitled” fellow takes life in his stride. He welcomes top jobs and challenges with open arms, even if wholly ill-equipped to meet them. He might create havoc but will smile and shrug or emigrate his way out of any blame. He appears carefree and unusually immune to anxiety. He has no experience of a whole tranche of human life and, because of this, he wildly underestimates the struggles of those born with no financial safety net and few natural advantages.
Meanwhile, those of us who wonder if the phrase “Eton mess” best describes the state of the nation rather than your favourite pudding like to use the word “entitled” when speaking of certain members of the government. A recent political suggestion from hearts and minds I’d term “entitled”, for example, was that the parents of truanting children should have their benefits cut. This is “entitled”, you might say, because it’s blinkered thinking, madly punitive, unlikely to improve the situation and, therefore, a whole bucket of nonsense; but even more so because of the assumption that children who truant have parents on benefits. I know several truanting children from affluent homes. What will be done there? Will the Covent Garden box be confiscated? The Cornish holiday home removed?
Yet such is the power of the word “entitled” that certain members of the government used it, much to my surprise, to describe some of the rioters and looters who made their presence felt in London this summer. This usage was quite a complicated rhetorical act. Have deprivation and entitlement ever been yoked in this way before? Yet it was asked, repeatedly, how dare these rioters steal running shoes and telephones from their neighbourhood stores as if they thought themselves owed such treasures?
Of course, in a more domestic arena, the word “entitled” is used to rail against someone who is repeatedly late or who doesn’t return your calls or wipe their boots. You can use it about a friend who is smarter, richer, kinder, less anxious, more charitable, more highly strung or happier than you. Or anyone who makes excessive demands of you, or even just demands, like children who expect their backs to be stroked for 40 minutes at bedtime when they are neither ill nor upset.
Recently, though, I have heard this insult used about people to whom I don’t think it applies. A woman I know who is a warm and super-successful professional and mother of three is beguilingly scatty in appearance. She will arrive at quite smart events in knee-length shorts and a bobbly fleece with a bit of mud on her arm from the park, rather than a neat coat like everyone else. I have always found this charming, refreshing. She could, if she chose, intimidate wildly but her styling renders her cosy and approachable. I think it’s modest somehow. A year or two ago everyone agreed with me about this – “Good old Gwendolyn”, “how very down to earth”, etc. But now people say, “She’s so entitled! I mean, how confident do you have to be to make no effort at all?”
When modesty can be interpreted as entitlement and vice versa, life sure is complicated. A year ago, if a rather glamorous friend had invited you to a home so covered in bits, bobs and dens made from chairs, blankets and even goats, so that passports and straw hats and even whole pies went missing, never to be seen again, you might have thought she was blithely relaxed, eccentric, a bit madcap. This year it has been decreed that she is outlandish, complacent – “entitled”. Any normal person would tidy up for a friends’ visit, surely? What makes her think she is above such common practices?
I am torn. I am torn. I despise people with power who have a superiority complex and no knowledge or imagination. I might have fashioned a career out of my anxieties but I do not wish the world to be wholly devoid of the carefree. No, no, no, no, no.
More columns at www.ft.com/boyt