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The term "worth" is used to specify the amount of money a person owns.

It is used as in "She is worth 1 million USD". (Meaning, her net worth is 1 million USD.)

In German, it is unclear what the unit of worth of a person is, but it is clear that it is not €, not USD, not DM.
It irritates me every single time to hear a person is worth an amount of money.

To wildly speculate about the background of it:

The worth is approximately the potential maximal ransom if the person would be abducted. In this way, the term makes sense as the free market value of the control over the body of a person. But that seems at least somewhat strange.

The worth of a slave should be significantly higher than the money he has with him. For the market value of a slave itself it does work well, and intuitively.

It feels very off that the worth of a person is even a scalar value. And that you add the worth of multiple persons.

Is there an interpretation that helps to avoid that conflict?
What is the source of it?

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  • You actually cannot say "The net worth of her is 1 million USD." It's not acceptable in its grammar.
    – tchrist
    Dec 24, 2019 at 0:17
  • A kidnapper is not legally entitled to a kidnapee's possessions, so the amount of money a person could be ransomed for seems totally unrelated to that person's wealth. Would it help you to think of "she is worth X" as being a shortened form of "the sum of her non-financial assets plus her net financial assets is worth X"?
    – Juhasz
    Dec 24, 2019 at 0:33
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    Words simply have multiple meanings. When you say "This table is worth $1000," you mean, "To buy this table or one like it, it costs $1000." When you say, "Liz is worth three million dollars," you mean, "Liz has three million dollars in assets." merriam-webster.com/dictionary/worth e.g. provides these as two separate definitions. Dec 24, 2019 at 1:48
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    How is this a question of language? It could be conducted in any language. It seems more a question of sociology.
    – Mitch
    Dec 24, 2019 at 2:02
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    @RamPillai Yes, that is exactly what irritated me, measuring a persons worth in units of money. It's outright insulting in German, but as the answers explain, the English is a shortened form of a technical term. It could be a company instead of a person. Dec 24, 2019 at 8:33

4 Answers 4

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"Net worth" has a specific economic meaning and shouldn't be applied outside its scope.

Originally, this was applied to companies:

Find the net worth of the firm at commencement of business (the sum total of all the partners' original investments), then, find the difference between the now present gross worth and the then present net worth of same — which difference will be the net business gain or net business loss — if worth more now than then, then of course a gain; and if worth less now than then, a loss.

Goodwin's Improved Book-keeping and Business Manual by Joseph Henry Goodwin, New York City, 1884.

This was a measure of the assets of a business venture with limited applicability.

Nowadays, this refers to the financial resources a company or individual can call upon in their own right without borrowing more money -- the total value of their assets minus the total value of their liabilities.

It has nothing to do with the "worth" of a person in any wider sense. Clearly, some quite wealthy people are totally worthless, or even of negative worth.

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Worth is a peculiar word with peculiar properties. It's part of the Commercial Transaction Frame, along with value, cost, and price, though their individual meanings are hard to pin down.

Here's what I said about worth in the paper linked above:

... the categorial status of worth is a matter of some dispute. It has variously been claimed to be a preposition and an adjective. If it is a preposition, then it must have a homophonous derived noun, since phrases like the worth of the book are common enough. On the other hand, if it is an adjective, then it must be transitive, since it has a complement. ... Let it stand that no matter what category worth may belong to, it is an atypical example of the category.

As for her worth, that's an abbreviation for net worth, which is a technical term in finance. Outside finance, it doesn't mean that. Words are not rigid.

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    Why would worth not be simply a noun?
    – CJ Dennis
    Dec 24, 2019 at 11:53
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    @CJ Dennis in 'the net worth / value is', 'worth' is a noun. But how many nouns can fill the gap in 'This car is ____ $40 000'? Dec 26, 2019 at 19:06
  • That does make your point. I'd say there are no nouns that can occupy that position, so in that sentence a better question is "what part of speech can occupy that position?" It must be an adverb, because if you can't find a sensible part of speech, call it an adverb!
    – CJ Dennis
    Dec 26, 2019 at 23:08
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This issue arises when words used within a particular context are (re)interpreted more broadly.

For example, you might have a British postage stamp. If I ask you who the person on the stamp is, you might say, “The Queen”. Within the context of the question, that answer would be fine. But others might argue that the Queen isn’t on the postage stamp. She’s at Balmoral Castle, Buckingham Palace, or perhaps over in Australia visiting her subjects.

In the case of net worth, the context is something along the lines of “How much does the person have?” The sum of assets alone doesn’t tell the full picture because they might also owe money on a mortgage or credit cards, and some of their assets might be shared with others.

So asking how much their stuff is worth isn’t enough - hence the change in focus to how much they themselves are worth.

Of course, human worth is far more complicated than a dollar figure. Anyone who has loved anyone can attest that no amount of money can substitute for the loved one - that is, their worth is far greater than mere money.

But language is only intelligible within the context of what is being communicated, and if that context is finance, the person’s net worth is viewed from the restricted lens of finance. It doesn’t reduce the person’s intrinsic worth, it just restricts the portion under consideration.

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Context applies. A bottle of water costs €1 but is priceless to someone dying of dehydration. Just because the market puts a price on a resource doesn't mean that it inherently claims that the value is equal to everyone nor that this expression of value is the most important.

Net worth essentially expresses the amount of money you'd be able to gather by selling off someone's property at current market rate (on top of the money they also have).

Who has the most money: the guy with €100 in the bank, or the guy with €10 in the bank. The answer is obvious as numbers are easily comparable.

But what if we're accounting for non-money assets? Who is the richest: the guy who owns 1 supercar or the guy who owns 10 cows? 10 is a bigger number than 1, but does that mean the second guy is richer? No. The supercar costs more money than 10 cows, and therefore the guy with the supercar is richer than the guy with the cows.

However, if cowsbecome massively valuable tomorrow, e.g. if there is a massive food scarcity, then the guy with the cows will be richer (= have a higher net worth) when you take the current market rate (= tomorrow's) into account. These two guys' property did not change since yesterday, and yet their relative net worth did.


In German, it is unclear what the unit of worth of a person is, but it is clear that it is not €, not USD, not DM.

It feels very off that the worth of a person is even a scalar value.

"Net worth" and "worth" are not direct synonyms and your above statements on a person's worth are not synonymous with any statement on a person's net worth.


It feels very off that the worth of a person is even a scalar value.

Without scalar values, the economy as we know it today cannot exist. I grow potatoes and have many of them, you are a tailor with many clothes. You want food for the winter and are asking me for potatoes, but I'm a nudist and don't want your clothes. Now what? If I'm the only farmer nearby, should you now starve?

Suppose you really like potatoes and hate strawberries. You'd happily trade many of your clothes for my potatoes. But if you hated potatoes and loved strawberries, you wouldn't give me many clothes for my potatoes. But you would give many clothes for Bob's strawberries and thus trade all your clothes for Bob's strawberries. Essentially, your food preference decides whether my family or Bob's family will have clothes for the coming winter.

Does that strike you as fair? Should the worth of my survival be decided by which food you like?

By ensuring that all physical resources (potatoes, clothes, chairs, ...) are expressable as the same scalar value (i.e. currency), we ensure that you and I can exchange goods in a way that we don't have to decide what every item's value is to every person.

This does lead to us being able to compare the value of different resources (and, by extension, people who own a pile of resources), but this comparable nature of economic value is by design to ensure that we can freely trade without worrying too much about who exactly buys my potatoes or who buys your clothes.

The odds of me going unclothed or you going hungry are much lower than if we'd need to barter for good with each other directly. My money is as good as Bob's, regardless whether I make my money growing potatoes or strawberries and whether you prefer potatoes or strawberries.

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  • “Dying of dehydration”? Could you translate that into English, please?
    – David
    Dec 27, 2019 at 17:59

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