Sir Thomas Wyatt’s “They Flee From Me” and the history of the word deserve.
The best I-just-got-dumped pop song ever, beating out such classics as “Wild World,” “Don’t You Want Me,” “Nothing Compares 2 U,” “You Oughta Know,” and “Irreplaceable,” is six hundred years old: Sir Tom’s “Runaway,” known to poets and scholars as “They Flee From Me” by Thomas Wyatt. You can read the original lyrics here (old spelling, modern spelling), but the structure and arc couldn’t be simpler: three verses, no chorus.
- Wait, what? They used to come running after me.
- Especially this one girl. Man, she was so hot.
- It’s true. Now she won’t even talk to me. I must have been too nice.
At least she’ll get her comeuppance: “But since that I so kindly am served / I would fain know what she hath deserved.”
To paraphrase: since she was so nice to me (sarcastic!)—and/or the now-obsolete meaning: since she treated me so in keeping with her kind, just the way you’d expect her to act (that bitch!)—I’d like to know what she has coming. The strange word to modern ears is the last one. Doesn’t the singer already know what she deserves, just not what she’s going to get?
What it means to deserve has changed in six hundred years. The prefix de-, from Latin, not only means “down” or “down from” (descend, decline, derail) but “down to the bottom,” thoroughly, completely. To declaim is to shout away, to declare is to make perfectly clear, to denude is to strip totally bare, to despoil is to ruin utterly. To deserve is to serve zealously and meritoriously, thus to merit by service. In the original meaning, now obsolete, deserve means to acquire or earn a rightful claim by virtue of actions or qualities; now it means to have already acquired it. Wyatt was curious what his ex-girlfriend had earned by her behavior.
To earn (from the German ernten, “to harvest”) is to labor, specifically farm labor: reaping, threshing, sowing. To earn means to work and as a result to obtain or deserve a reward of money, praise, or advantage. The doubling and difference of the two words is typical of English vocabulary, in a pattern dating back to the Norman Conquest: Germanic words are agricultural, peasant, blunt, while French or Latinate words are courtly and fancy. Mother and father versus maternity and paternity, work versus employment, king versus royal majesty, “Can I help” versus “May I be of assistance.” One kind of person tends cows, pigs, sheep, and deer, the other eats beef, pork, mutton, and venison.
Manual labor and courtly service used to be parallel in English—to deserve was to earn by good service; to earn was to work hard and deserve a reward. But the courtly sense shifted. Now to deserve something means you’ve already earned it: it’s owed to you even if you don’t do any more work than you already have (or haven’t!). Upper-class prosperity is self-perpetuating: if you have capital already, it’ll pay out interest on its own. There are no unjust deserts in English, because deserts are what you deserved/earned in the old sense, what you deserve in the new sense. (Dessert, incidentally, has two s’s because it’s from dis-serve, “to clear the table.”)
Other languages don’t share this idea of what’s fair. In German, earn and deserve are the same word: verdienen (from dienen, “to serve”; a Diener is a servant, Dienst is service). This is often a translation puzzle: How should verdienen be translated in any given case? You can get what you deserve in German, too—Er bekommt was er verdient—but then you’re also always getting what you earned through your hard work. Faith that the system functions properly is built into the language. It makes my head spin to imagine what our culture would be like if we always earned what we deserve and deserved what we earn.
In French, meanwhile, deserve is mériter, “to merit,” while earn is gagner: to gain, to win, whether a game of skill or a crapshoot. Deserts are just, but gains are ill-gotten—earning, in the French language, is separate from merit. This is a cynical view, fit for Balzacian strivers and misers or philosophers who think that everything is about power: what you have coming to you is what you’ve gotten your hands on, by hook or by crook. In German, all earnings are deserved; in French none are.
In English, you get what you deserve, if you’re rich. At least we all reap what we sow.
Damion Searls, the Daily’s language columnist, is a translator from German, French, Norwegian, and Dutch.