Words-worth: Bonus

A bonus is a good thing - or meant to be, etymologically speaking, at least.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The word is Latin, though not correct Latin: the word for 'good thing' is not bonus but bonum, which also means wealth, benefit, profit, etc. The mistake was made in the late 18th century, when the word bonus first appeared, probably in Stock Exchange slang. Bonus is better translated as 'good man'. Good men receive bonuses, defined as payments over and above what is due to them as their normal remuneration, but so do lots of others. This is the source of much of the controversy surrounding bonuses. In common parlance, a bonus is a reward for exceptional performance or a way of distributing surplus profits. But among many potential recipients, bonuses are something to which they are entitled, losses and government bailouts notwithstanding. The difference between these two interpretations goes some way towards explaining the sense of grievance felt on both sides and why, good thing or not, 'bonus' is beginning to be a dirty word.

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