Deserve versus desire

Column by Hallie Beard, Opinion Editor

When I have nothing else to do, I think about the meaning of words and how we use them as modern speakers.

While I could go on a rant about the meaning of the word “literally” in comparison to its contemporary usage, I won’t, because I literally use that word every day. I know it’s incorrect, and I don’t care. Gotta stick with the times, right?

For the past few months, I’ve been working pretty hard to get my ducks in a row for what this year will bring: graduation, new jobs, the potential of moving, graduate school – it’s frightening stuff, and extremely time-consuming.

Naturally, it’s easy to let all the work that’s gone into those prospects dramatically skew my attitude. If I face the slightest rejection, I suddenly question all life choices. If a friend has success, I’m automatically comparing myself to them, wondering what I could have done to have that, too.

The word I’ve been mulling over?

Deserve.

“I deserve this, don’t I?” I’ll ask my friends or mom, already convinced that my resumé or work should be strong enough to win someone over.

Or, more commonly, I’m getting a Dairy Queen blizzard with a friend after a rough day, claiming, “It’s OK – we deserve it.”

These claims got me thinking, though. What does it really mean to deserve something? How can we know when we’ve honestly done the work to be worthy of getting the prize we’re after?

Here’s where the dictionary came in, because who doesn’t love studying etymology on the weekends?

The word deserve came into our vocabulary through Middle English, where it came from the French deservir and, ultimately, the Latin deservire.

I took Latin in high school and am not ashamed to say I was a Latin nerd. It’s a beautiful language, and most of the beauty, in my opinion, comes from the way in which we translate it. In Latin, there’s always a way to translate literally, boiling down to the closest meaning of the word possible. It’s very pleasing, and it makes language seem more like a puzzle than some vague, intangible tool we throw around helplessly.

The Latin deservire literally means “to serve completely” or “to serve well.” Servire is the infinitive meaning “to serve,” and the prefix de- means “completely” in this case.

Alternatively – and what I’m about to say is unfounded, purely based upon my thoughts about translation – I think the prefix de- could also work in a more traditional sense here, meaning “out of.” Then, the word might have a translation closer to “out of serving” or “because of service.”

Maybe this doesn’t seem interesting at all, but consider those meanings and how they apply to our usage of the word deserve.

When you’ve had a bad day and claim to deserve an ice cream cone, are you following the literal meaning of the word? Have you completed service that would grant you the luxury of a sugary concoction?

Sometimes, sure. But most times? Probably not. In cases where the “deserving” comes out of poor circumstances, perceived bad luck or a foul attitude, we’re actually using the wrong word completely. If no service was completed, there is no “deserve” – there is only desire.

“Class was hard today, so I deserve this treat.” No, not quite – try, “Class was hard today, and because of how that made me feel, I desire to comfort myself with this treat.” A bit wordy, but that’s it.

Now, I’m not out to keep you from “Treat Yo Self” days. Those happen pretty much daily for me, and I realize their importance.

We should, though, check ourselves when we’re angry about getting or not getting something we believe we “deserve.”

We should ask ourselves, “Do I deserve this, or simply want this? Have I served anyone – helped anyone other than myself or contributed goodness – in trying to get this thing?”

Perhaps “earn” should swap with “deserve” for a while. You’d never claim to have earned something without doing the work (well, you might, but that’s problematic).

There are plenty of times when we both desire and deserve something, and that’s great. But it’s important to realize when we’re justified in the language we use and when we’re simply speaking untruths.