July 14, 2012
Unearned Income

From the New York Times story today on JPMorgan’s recent gambling losses, now at $5,800,000,000 and headed south:

…Ina R. Drew, the senior executive who resigned as head of the chief investment office shortly after the trading losses, volunteered to give back her pay. The giveback is a precipitous fall for Ms. Drew, once one of Mr. Dimon’s most trusted executives. Ms. Drew earned roughly $14 million last year, making her the bank’s fourth-highest-paid officer. Ms. Drew declined to comment…

I may have bitched about this before, but here goes again. Republican word-twister Frank Luntz doesn’t even need to bother twisting the word “earn” into a new frame. Standard media usage has already done the job for him, as we see in the paragraph above. Historically, “earn” carried a favorable connotation: study hard and you earned a Phi Beta Kappa key; honest dealing earned you a good reputation; you earned your salary by working hard at some productive task.

By and large the word was used to describe a particular type of exchange — one party providing something desirable and useful to a second party and receiving a reward for it in rough proportion to the service provided. A win-win transaction.

We would not say that your uncle Charlie earned a hundred bucks at the poker table last week, or that a lottery winner earned a million dollars, or that Bernie Madoff earned a billion, or that Mitt Romney earned a fortune from his father’s will.

In what sense, then, did Ms. Drew “earn” $14,000,000 last year?

It isn’t that the English language lacks words to describe what Ms. Drew and Mr. Dimon do for their money. Here is a short list:

Get hold of, grab, get, receive, snatch, take, grasp, amass, obtain, seize, get your hands on, divert, embezzle, skim, swindle, mulct, extract, acquire, gain, procure, score, secure, misappropriate, siphon, loot.

Take your pick, but give “earn” a rest.


Posted by Jerome Doolittle at July 14, 2012 08:46 PM
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Or we could give "earn" some useful work by applying it to the time-consuming activity of standing in line, filling out forms, and learning and following rules in order to receive public benefits.

Posted by: Martha Bridegam on July 15, 2012 2:08 PM

"The Financial Sector invents nothing, innovates nothing, manufacturers nothing, extracts nothing, harvests nothing, communicates nothing, transports nothing, produces nothing, writes nothing, cleans nothing, builds nothing and neither entertains, pleasures nor heals anyone. It won't even pretend to love you in the morning. It is nearly entirely de trop (though it will protest that it is finding newer and newer ways for money to be "liquid," and that it is the mythical fountain of job creation); yet it is the sinkhole of much of the wealth in the US."

appropriate language to use in this context as well ...the above language found on a comment board at the NY Times. I couldn't have said it better myself.

Posted by: Cool Hand Geek on July 16, 2012 12:16 PM

One expects better from professional journalists. If they keep up this kind of sloppiness they'll be calling your grandkids your ancestors, and describing a demolished building as decimated.

...Just like the typical citizen does.

Posted by: John Anthony Curran on July 16, 2012 11:11 PM

How about abscond, swipe, steal, grift, graft, filch?

Posted by: Mamasan on July 17, 2012 10:53 AM
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