Life not fair; film at 11.

Dear Word Detective: I have a pet peeve about the prevalent use of the word “deserve.” My belief about all of life is that you get what you get: good people experience bad things and vice versa. So, not wanting to blame the word itself, I did a little search on its etymology (as best I could using Google) and cannot see where the concept of “being worthy of” a certain result was an aspect of the original definition. I read that the word originates from Latin, “de” meaning “completely,” and “servire” meaning “to serve.” So, “deserve” should simply mean that something serves us (is aligned with our goals, desires, etc.) or doesn’t serve us. There doesn’t seem to be anything about whether or not we earned it, until later in the history of the word’s usage. Yeah, life sometimes serves us and sometimes it doesn’t, but that in itself holds no judgment about the virtue of the person being served. Am on the right track here or do I need to banish the word from my personal lexicon? — Trish McCormick, Bozeman, Montana.

Oh, don’t do that. It’s a useful word, and other people would keep using it anyway. I think, if I’m reading your question correctly, that I agree with your annoyance at the current fashion of using “deserve” in a way that implies that every good or bad thing that happens to someone is the payoff of a karmic Instant Rewards program run by the universe. That staple of the evening news, the declaration that an honor student “didn’t deserve” to have his bicycle stolen (or worse) is obnoxious. Who does “deserve” misfortune? And who decides? The gang at Action Nine News? The corollary supposition, the basis of many self-improvement cults, that a less attractive person must have secretly “deserved” (or attracted) ill fortune is even more repulsive. But such rhetorical crimes are beyond my power to cure.

You’re correct about the roots and origin of our modern word “deserve,” but I’m afraid that the brief etymologies of words found in conventional dictionaries (including those widely available on the internet) often omit important developments in the histories of words. That’s why a historical dictionary like the Oxford English Dictionary, which tracks the evolution of words over the centuries, is so valuable. It’s when we trace the history of “deserve” that we find a sharp turn in its development.

It’s true that the root of our “deserve,” the Latin verb “deservire,” meant “to serve well and enthusiastically,” as a soldier or public servant might serve the citizens of Rome. Such a loyal and zealous servant has, in most civilized societies, the understandable expectation that his or her service will be rewarded. The fact that the service that someone renders earns them the right to expect a reward for their work led to the change in “deserve.” In Late Latin (roughly the third to sixth centuries A.D.), the Classical Latin meaning of “deservire” (“to serve well”) gradually shifted to that of “to earn or be entitled to by serving well.” It was this “earned it” meaning which became the Old French “deservir,” which eventually, in the 13th century, became the English verb “to deserve.” The initial sense of “deserve” in English was “to earn a rightful claim by doing something,” but by the 15th century it had taken on the modern meaning of simply “having earned a claim or entitlement” to something.

Incidentally, the belief that the original meaning of a word is necessarily its “true” meaning is called “the etymological fallacy.” The word “etymology,” meaning the study of the origin and development of words, comes ultimately from the Greek “etymos,” meaning “true,” plus “logos,” meaning “word.” Early lexicographers believed that determining the root of a word would reveal its “true” meaning. They were wrong. We still use the term “etymology,” but it’s long been apparent that words really do frequently change their meanings over time, those new meanings are as “true” as any other, and, as in the case of “deserve,” the roots of a word can be a bit deceptive.

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