Privilege: A Dirty Word?

Privilege. What does this loaded word mean? Objectively, that is. We’ll get to the slippery, subjective meanings soon enough.

What does this loaded word mean? Objectively, that is. We’ll get to the slippery, subjective meanings soon enough.

priv·i·lege : originally from the Latin privilegium, a ‘bill or law affecting an individual’. The word meandered through Old French for a while before arriving in Middle English in the form we know today.

As eleven letters became nine, Latin became French became English, so too have our attitudes shifted. Privilege is still about an individual (but the prefixes under- and over- aren’t usually very far away when we speak about groups). So what’s changed in the definition?

Privilege – or a lack of – is no longer about bills or laws, it’s about individual circumstances, and more often than not, individual circumstances that are out of our control from the word ‘go’. Ethnicity. Gender. Wealth vs poverty. In the face of today’s gaping economic and social chasms, privilege carries with it accusations of tainted advantage, an inequality that should be played down.


Especially when it’s used in the same sentence as ‘Millennials’, privilege has become a dirty word, the shortcut taken by someone unwilling to work hard who sees a smooth straight path as their due. Is that the truth? On an individual basis, maybe so, sometimes, but I would argue with the common perception that all Millennials see it this way.

As I was thinking about how my generation views privilege – or, as it’s been argued, chooses not to see it – the unthinkable happened in the small community of La Loche, Saskatchewan. In the days that followed, the word took on an entirely different meaning.

As news of the shooting began to spread, I began to hear about one of the victims, a man I didn’t know personally, but who was a good friend of several of my friends. I learned about him through a lens of grief. ‘It was a privilege to know him’ was the greatest compliment each of the mourners could offer. I heard it over and over again, saw it in the print coverage and across social media.

Earlier that week, another man had passed away. His life story was different – a full life, a death that was sad, but not tragic – yet the same word echoed in the circles of family and friends. Privilege, said with gratitude and humility echoing through the sorrow.

priv·i·lege : a sense of deep gratitude, born of humility in the knowledge of something or someone great.

Yes, it’s important to understand and to debate the broader social and economic impact of the privileges, or lack thereof, that have shaped our path. But it’s reaching for the deeper sense of privilege, the feeling not the mechanics, which gives me hope. Hope that the tears in our social fabric can be mended by those who gratefully acknowledge the help they’ve had – and then turn around to offer a hand up to someone else.

Kate Todd | @KTodd_Writes

By day, Kate Todd is a business analyst for an international fine art firm. In every other spare minute, she is a reader and writer. Her first novel, an art crime thriller, is currently out there looking for a home with an agent.