Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon looks at the word “bonus”.
There has recently been much discussion of, and consternation regarding, the subject of bonuses; specifically the bonuses that are being self-awarded by the upper-echelon workers (sic) of Wall Street. On the one side of the descriptive chasm opened up by this word we have those who have received (or hope to receive) large sums of money above what their stated salaries are. This group seems to be making the claim that a bonus is a sacrosanct right for those in their position; a thing that should not be subject to such vagaries as ‘economic climate’ and ‘results’. On the other side we have pretty much everybody else in the world, hawking and spitting at the bonusees, crying that if the money should be used for anything it should be to serve as kindling to light the fire with which we will roast the Wall Streeters.
I expect that many people are turning to their dictionary, as is frequently the case when there is contention about a putatively definable subject, with the expectation that this book will solve the matter once and for all. However, I suspect that this is one of the instances in which the documentation of a word has not yet caught up with its usage.
Most dictionaries define the primary meaning of bonus in similar fashion – something above and beyond what was promised, a reward for superior performance, etc. This is at odds with the meaning attached to it by the individuals on Wall Street whose bonuses are causing this rumpus (the Wall Street definition seems as though it would be closer to ‘1. What I deserve. 1a. What I need to pay my mortgage. 2. It’s none of your business what my bonus is. 2b. Did I tell you about my mortgage?’)
According to the OED, the etymology of bonus is “An ignorant or jocular application” of the Latin bonus ‘good (man)’, (an assertion that will no doubt occasion much teeth-gnashing among those whose 401k statements lately have had nothing good in them), and that is “probably intended to signify a boon, ‘a good thing’ (bonum).” And they also add that the word was most likely originally Stock Exchange slang. It is possible that the discrepancy between how some people view the meaning of bonus has to do with these origins in the financial world – that relatively small group of people in business who have become used to receiving a bonus have attached a very different meaning to the word than the rest of us.
Is this alternate use by a minority of the population something that should be reflected in dictionaries? Should there be a new sense of bonus added, one that properly reflects both the usage and feelings of entitlement common among denizens of Wall Street in the early 21st century? I’m not a lexicographer, and so don’t feel qualified to pass judgment on how the word should be treated. If it was up to me I would most likely dodge the issue, perhaps in the same way that the Latin dictionaries we had in high school used to. When faced with the delicate task of defining an indelicate word, such as most of the vocabulary of Catullus, they would simply list the Latin word and then also give the definition in Latin. So henceforth bonus could be defined as ‘pecunia volo’.