earn

When you earn something, it means you worked for it. The idea is that the work you did entitles you to the thing you got.

But “earn” can also mean “get.” Say two people do the same job and each receives an annual salary of $35,000, but one of them is terrible at the job. We still say the bad employee “earns” $35,000 a year.

It is easy to confuse these definitions.

Is someone working 80 hours a week at three different minimum-wage jobs “earning” less money/time off/health insurance than a hedge fund manager? In the sense that “earn” means “acquire,” then yes, definitely! But in the other, hazier sense of the word — the one that implies a fair trade for the volume and difficulty of the work performed — probably not. In fact, it’s possible that the hedge-fund manager wouldn’t “earn” nearly as much money if the minimum-wage worker was paid what she earned.

It’s important to remember this when you hear people on TV and the internet talking about who has earned what.