‘Entitled’ meaning ‘having the title’

March 25, 2014

Prof. Mark Liberman (Language Log) quotes a commenter who writes,

In reference to: This ties in perfectly with the recent post entitled “Once more on the present continuative ending -ing in Chinese” in two ways:

Entitled is incorrect. TITLED is correct.

Unless the letters are “entitled” to an ice cream cone.

I’ve seen this elsewhere, and think it’s just zany. Look up “entitled” in the Random House Dictionary, and you see definition 2, “to call by a particular title or name: What was the book entitled?” Look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, as you see examples going literally all the way back to Chaucer. (I mean here “literally” in the sense of “literally,” not in the sense of “figuratively.”) Unsurprisingly, other dictionaries follow suit. And a quick Google Ngrams search reports that, while “a book entitled” and “a book called” have been about equally common for centuries, “a book titled” was virtually never used until the late 1930s, and remains less than half as common than “a book entitled” even today.

Words have multiple meanings. That can be annoying. It can be distracting. Sometimes (though not that often) it can be confusing. But even if we wish that only one of those meanings survive, that doesn’t make all the others “wrong” under any sensible definition of “wrong” that I can think of.

So if you want to say that you think “entitled” in this context comes across to you as unduly fancy, or as potentially distracting, or as just plain annoying, go right ahead (though you might be properly reluctant to condemn a fellow participant in a conversation on such grounds). But there’s no basis, it seems to me, for labeling it “incorrect,” unless you can explain who died and appointed you Usage King.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.
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