One of the reasons for the ascendance of the English-speaking world has been that the English language is almost alone among major languages in having the word “earn.”
Those of us whose native language is English assume that the phrase “to earn a living” is universal. It isn’t. It is almost unique to English. Few languages have the ability to say this.
In the Romance languages, for example – a list that includes such major languages as Spanish, French, and Italian -- the word used when saying someone “earns” money, is “ganar” in Spanish, “gagner” in French. The word literally means “to win.” In Hebrew the word “marveach” means “profits.” In German, the word “verdient” means “deserves.”
Obviously, it is very different to “win” or to “deserve” or to “profit” than to “earn.”
Since the 1960s-‘70s, a concerted effort has been made to weed the word, and therefore the cultural value, of “earning” from American life. Increasingly little is earned. Instead of earning, we are increasingly owed, or we have more rights, or we are simply given.
Many American kids no longer earn awards or trophies for athletic success. They are given trophies and awards for showing up. These trophies are not earned, just granted -- essentially for breathing.
Another increasingly widespread concept that undermines the notion of earning is “unconditional love.” The term, which was barely used prior to the 1960s, is now ubiquitous. It is a prominent goal, a human ideal to strive for. The idea of having to earn love is more than unheard of today; it would strike most moderns as morally suspect.
We expect unconditional love not only from parents to babies and toddlers, but to children of any age, no matter how they act. Parental unconditional love means that all people, no matter how disgracefully they act --- even toward a parent -- and no matter how old they are, must be shown infinite love from their parents. Parental love is never to be earned, always to be given.
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