Q: I recently asked a friend to give me the benefit of his thoughts about something. He responded thusly: “Asking for the benefit of my thoughts is a bit presumptuous—my wife can confirm that using the word ‘benefit’ in connection with my thoughts is an abuse of the English language!” I believe his response was meant to be humorous, but perhaps there is an abuse of the language here. What think ye?
A: We think your friend was joking. He meant that in asking for the benefit of his thoughts, you were presuming they’d be of value—that is, beneficial. And according to his wife, that might be presuming too much!
But asking for the “benefit” of someone’s thoughts is a little more subtle than baldly asking for something of value. It’s a polite way to ask for something the speaker thinks may be to his advantage—almost like asking him a favor.
Here’s a little history.
When “benefit” entered English in the late 14th century, it meant a good deed or a kindness.
Its journey into the language began with Latin (benefactum, a good deed or, literally, a thing well done), then led into Old French (bienfait) and Anglo-Norman (benfet).
When it entered English in the late 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “benefit” had two meanings: (1) a good deed or something well done; (2) a kindness, favor, or gift.
The earliest examples of these senses of the word—both considered obsolete or archaic today—are from a single work, William Langland’s Piers Plowman (1377).
The “good deed” sense of the word survived into the 19th century. The OED’s final entry for the word used in this sense is from Walter Savage Landor, who wrote in 1811, “Man’s only relics are his benefits.”
The other early meaning—the “kindness” or “favor” sense of the word—survived into the 17th century.
Shakespeare uses “benefit” this way in As You Like It (circa 1600), where Rosalind says of Fortune that “her benefits are mightily misplaced.”
Today, people use “benefit” to mean advantage, profit, or good, a sense that came along in the early 1500s, though English writers sometimes used the Old French word in that sense in the 1300s and 1400s.
This is the meaning of the word “benefit” that’s used in certain stock expressions, including the one you wrote us about.
When people ask you for “the benefit of your thoughts (or expertise, etc.),” they’re asking to take advantage of your knowledge, or to avail themselves of it.
As the OED explains it, “for the benefit of” in this case means “for the advantage of.”
But we can’t help thinking that something of the old “kindness” meaning clings to the expression. People who ask for “the benefit of your thoughts” are saying in effect that you would be doing them a kindness by sharing those thoughts.
Another such stock expression is “the benefit of the doubt.” This originally meant giving a verdict of “not guilty” when the evidence against an accused person was uncertain.
Today, the expression is used in a wider sense. To give someone “the benefit of the doubt” means “to incline to the more favourable or kindly decision, estimate, or the like,” the OED says.
The sense of “benefit” meaning some kind of perk or financial assistance—like medical or pension benefits—came along in the late 19th century. And the phrases “fringe benefit” and “benefit package” were coined in the mid-20th century.
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