Word Games: Bonus

Bonus, boni, bono, bonum, bono, bone. Not a chant for U2's Ray-Banned frontman, but the declension of bonus in Latin. We use the word all the time; it lives, even though the language died. It makes you realise, gleefully, that we're not so distant from the Romans, really - still using their words, still wearing their togas . . . If only.

But bonus, which means "good", has become a tarnished word. Now, it comes umbilically attached to "banker" (never a good position to be in) and conjures very specific visions of red-faced chumps driving Ferraris while unleashing burning £50 notes through the sunroof.

The Daily Mail announced recently that the banks were about to indulge in a "bonus bonanza". Reports emerged claiming that Stephen Hester, chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland, could be paid as much as £6.8m in bonuses, salary and "other payments" this year. What are these murky "other payments"? I imagine the bean-counter in the RBS vault wading through heaps of gold coins and thinking: "Well, it wouldn't hurt to give him a bit more, would it?"

David Cameron said of Hester's haul that he wanted the "bonus pool" in general to be smaller this year. A pool? That sort of talk doesn't help to dispel the image of the bankers all swimming around in the stuff in diamanté swimming trunks.

I think the problems started when bonus became a noun. It was born as a mild-mannered adjective and performed perfectly well in that role. Think of the joy of the bonus track on an album, tucked away at the end, a little gift. Or the bonus round in a quiz show: the hopeful extra. Bonus, in those contexts, was modest - content to do a bit of describing.

But then bonus became a thing - it got promoted above its station, its head swelled and it started to revel in the power bestowed by noun-dom. The bonus came to be associated with extreme wealth, with the idea that those who are super-rich probably need to be topped up with extra cash to reward them for being super-rich.

Come back, bonus. You can be good again, I know it.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, War on WikiLeaks