Prodigal

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JulianStuart

Senior Member
English (UK then US)
As an offshoot of the thread on apocryphal, I went looking for a print example of the "misuse" of the word prodigal and found one in :eek: The Guardian". It meant "returning home after a long time" in a story about Fabregas returning to Barcelona. The word originally, and to many (most people, I suspect) still means "wasteful, lavish etc". The parable has two main descriptions of the lost son : 1) he was wasteful and 2) he went away and returned home when he was broke. The prodigal son is "the wasteful" son but more and more frequently I hear speaker who thinks it has the second meaning.

Do others hear this more these days, or am I just overly sensitive?
 
  • pob14

    Senior Member
    American English
    I have only ever used "prodigal son" to mean someone who left (generally intending not to return) and came back. I had no idea the word itself meant "wasteful."
     

    Myridon

    Senior Member
    English - US
    Actually, I thought that was what it meant until sometime last year. I think it was another thread on this forum that caused me to look it up.
    Most Bible translations that don't call him the prodigal son call him the lost son and I haven't seen one that has "the wasteful son". I suppose they use "lost" for symmetry because Luke 15 contains the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the X son.
     

    owlman5

    Senior Member
    English-US
    I think you're onto something, Julian. Searching through TMC* from 1980-2000, I found these examples:

    In the " technical " events -- slalom and giant slalom -- Kristina Koznick, the prodigal child of the women's team, is returning home in great form.
    But like Adam Carrington on Dynasty, Star went prodigal. He struck out on his own, becoming a critical hit with Sex and...
    Can prodigal corporate founders go home again? In the volatile tech industry, necessity sometimes heals...
    It was not a reunion of The Group that brought the prodigal daughter back from Paris to her alma mater, but an invitation to celebrate her 70th birthday by being Vassar's first " Distinguished Visitor. "

    In this collection, "prodigal" seems to be used fairly often to describe people who have left something and then returned or who have been invited to return. The dictionaries I checked had not yet come up with a standard definition for this sort of thing. They all offer "wasteful" or "lavish" in their definitions for the word. Writers seem to be borrowing the "strayed and then returned" idea directly from the biblical story.

    *Time Magazine Corpus


     

    Myridon

    Senior Member
    English - US
    The Word Reference dictionary has:
    "noun - a prodigal person. - (also prodigal son or daughter) a person who leaves home to lead a prodigal life but returns repentant"
    (I love definitions that contain the word that they are trying to define. :) )
     

    Fabulist

    Banned
    American English
    I had no idea that people were using it to mean "going away and coming back." I only have known it to mean "sinfully wasteful." If people were going to shift the meaning by making unwarranted assumptions (see "disinterested"), I would expect them to use it to mean either "prodigious" or "related to being a prodigy."
     

    JulianStuart

    Senior Member
    English (UK then US)
    The Word Reference dictionary has:
    "noun - a prodigal person. - (also prodigal son or daughter) a person who leaves home to lead a prodigal life but returns repentant"
    (I love definitions that contain the word that they are trying to define. :) )
    Thanks - I had not noticed that this sense was in the local resource:eek:. I knew of the sinful/wasteful part and assumed that the noun was simply someone with that characteristic. The addition of "but returns repentant (or is it broke?)" in the definition here acknowledges the transition in meaning I asked about.
     

    JulianStuart

    Senior Member
    English (UK then US)
    Follow-up 8+ years later...

    Malcolm Bright is an FBI agent (or brilliant psychologist, depending on the reviews), not a son who has left home, wasted his money and returned home. He starts to work with his father after many years of "estrangement". I predict the "returning home" meaning will now completely take over the dictionary entries to reflect "common usage" after "The Prodigal Son" has finished airing on Fox :)
    As Bright slips into the mind of this serial killer, he finds himself dealing with the repercussions of seeing his father for the first time in years.
     
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    Roxxxannne

    Senior Member
    English (northeastern US)
    'Prodigal' comes from a Latin word that means wasteful.
    Interestingly, though, Jerome doesn't seem to use it; the younger son spreads his property around in an extravagant way (my bad literal translation), which is the way Mark wrote it (not surprisingly, Jerome translates it well).
    Also, the point of the parable is that the father has a big feast for his younger son but won't give his older son even a goat for a BBQ with his friends He rejoices because he thought his younger son was lost to him as though he were dead, but now he's returned.
    So in terms of a parable it does have the connotation of someone who has utterly disappeared and returned.
     

    Myridon

    Senior Member
    English - US
    In between times of reading this thread, I can remember that "I learned that prodigal didn't originally mean what I think it means", but I can't remember what it means. I never hear it in any other context.
    I tried to find an article in Google News in which it didn't mean "returning" and the best I could do was one where the author seemed to think that Prodigal was the both sons' surname. o_O
     

    JulianStuart

    Senior Member
    English (UK then US)
    'Prodigal' comes from a Latin word that means wasteful.
    Interestingly, though, Jerome doesn't seem to use it; the younger son spreads his property around in an extravagant way (my bad literal translation), which is the way Mark wrote it (not surprisingly, Jerome translates it well).
    Also, the point of the parable is that the father has a big feast for his younger son but won't give his older son even a goat for a BBQ with his friends He rejoices because he thought his younger son was lost to him as though he were dead, but now he's returned.
    So in terms of a parable it does have the connotation of someone who has utterly disappeared and returned.
    The first part of thread covers that part (about the word increasingly being associated with the parable, not its original meaning), but the update is documenting the further transition in mainstream usage (how much more mainstream can you than Fox TV?:)) from "wasteful" to "returning - whether wasteful or not".
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    Isn't the notion of "wastefulness/recklessness" still inherent in the "comes home after absence" meaning, Julian?

    Here's the relevant OED definition of prodigal as an adjective:

    2. Of a person: that has lived a reckless or extravagant life away from home, but subsequently made a repentant return. Also more generally and figurative: that has gone astray; errant, wayward; wandering. Frequently in prodigal son (also daughter, child), with allusion to Luke 15:11–32 [...]

    cross-posted - I think you've answered my question!:)
     
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    JulianStuart

    Senior Member
    English (UK then US)
    Isn't the notion of "wastefulness/recklessness" still inherent in the "comes home after absence" meaning, Julian?

    Here's the relevant OED's definition of prodigal as an adjective:

    2. Of a person: that has lived a reckless or extravagant life away from home, but subsequently made a repentant return. Also more generally and figurative: that has gone astray; errant, wayward; wandering. Frequently in prodigal son (also daughter, child), with allusion to Luke 15:11–32 [...]
    Thanks Loob! This shows the transition in the dictionary, where the OED acknowledges the usage that includes returning in the definition of prodigal. Many posters above have indicated that the wastefulness was not a necessary part (for them) of the meaning and the new Fox show uses the term only on the basis of the father and son being estranged ad re-uniting, even though the son has had normal employment and held down a job and earned money etc, with no indication at all of wastefulness. That new "definition" completely misses the intent of the parable. So, newer or future dictionaries may well relegate the meaning "wasteful" to an "original meaning, now. obs or archaic." :)
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    The OED's noun definitions are, interestingly, rather further along that route than the adjective ones (all definitions updated to 2007):

    1 a. A person who spends money extravagantly and wastefully; a spendthrift. Now rare.
    b. A person who is wasteful of money, a resource, possession, asset, etc. Also figurative. Now rare and poetic.

    2. A person who has lived a reckless or extravagant life away from home, but subsequently made a repentant return. Also more generally: a reckless or wayward person; a returned wanderer.
     

    JulianStuart

    Senior Member
    English (UK then US)
    So, newer or future dictionaries may well relegate the meaning "wasteful" to an "original meaning, now.obs or archaic ." :)
    The OED's noun definitions are, interestingly, rather further along that route than the adjective ones (all definitions updated to 2007):
    1 a. A person who spends money extravagantly and wastefully; a spendthrift. Now rare.
    b. A person who is wasteful of money, a resource, possession, asset, etc. Also figurative. Now
    rare and poetic.
    Thanks again - I should leverage my British passport to obtain a subscription to a UK library to have access to OED on line - it will help me keep up with the times better :D
     

    Roxxxannne

    Senior Member
    English (northeastern US)
    Thanks again - I should leverage my British passport to obtain a subscription to a UK library to have access to OED on line - it will help me keep up with the times better :D
    I can get into the OED from home (in the US), through my local library.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I'm very conscious of the adjectival meaning, wasteful, but isn't there also a non-pejorative meaning - lavish, generous?

    It's there in the dictionaries, and I'm confident I've encountered it frequently.
     
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    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    I'm very conscious of the adjectival meaning, wasteful, but isn't there also a non-pejorative meaning - lavish, generous.

    It's there in the dictionaries, and I'm confident I've encountered it frequently.
    It is listed as a synonym for "generous": Synonyms of generous | Thesaurus.com

    Though for that meaning I would probably use one of the other synonyms, possibly "altruistic" or "charitable" or perhaps "philanthropic" (though "generous" would work fine).
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    Here's the relevant OED's definition of prodigal as an adjective:

    2. Of a person: that has lived a reckless or extravagant life away from home, but subsequently made a repentant return. Also more generally and figurative: that has gone astray; errant, wayward; wandering. Frequently in prodigal son (also daughter, child), with allusion to Luke 15:11–32 [...]
    This seems somewhat circular to me. The MSS of the Bible used a particular Koine Greek word that must have existed prior to the translation, and the meaning then becomes a description of the event it allegedly describes.
    The Online Etymological Dictionary gives
    prodigal (adj.)
    mid-15c., a back-formation from prodigality, or else from Middle French prodigal and directly from Late Latin prodigalis, from Latin prodigus "wasteful," from prodigere "drive away, waste," from pro "forth" (from PIE root *per- (1) "forward") + agere "to set in motion, drive; to do, perform" (from PIE root *ag- "to drive, draw out or forth, move"). First reference is to prodigal son, from Vulgate Latin filius prodigus (Luke xv.11-32). As a noun, "prodigal person," 1590s, from the adjective (the Latin adjective also was used as a noun).
    The OED gives
    Prodigality 1. a. Wasteful expenditure of one's material resources, esp. money; reckless extravagance; (also) a wasteful or extravagant act.​
    1340 Ayenbite (1866) 21 Fol niminge of greate spendinge, þet me clepeþ prodigalite.​
    Which is before the translation of the Bible into English.

    However Wikipedia Ayenbite of Inwyt has
    the title of a confessional prose work written in a Kentish dialect of Middle English. Rendered from the French original, one supposes by a "very incompetent translator," (Thomson 1907: 396) it is generally considered more valuable as a record of Kentish pronunciation in the mid-14th century than exalted as a work of literature
    The suggestion is that nobody really knew what "prodigal" meant, and therefore used it to describe the episode in general.

    I think there is not much doubt that it means "wasteful; spendthrift" but that it has come to mean "the wanderer returns after having a good time," by virtue of misdirection. Such is evolution.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Consequently it is with this, rather than with the aggregation and synthesis of disparate items of previous work and the distillation from them of new insights, that the volume is largely concerned. It is a very mixed bag, which is not surprising for a composer so prodigal with his talents over so wide a field. Oxford Early Music Magazine, talking about William Byrd.

    There's certainly no hint of wastefulness there, nor of returning whence one came.
     

    JulianStuart

    Senior Member
    English (UK then US)
    Consequently it is with this, rather than with the aggregation and synthesis of disparate items of previous work and the distillation from them of new insights, that the volume is largely concerned. It is a very mixed bag, which is not surprising for a composer so prodigal with his talents over so wide a field. Oxford Early Music Magazine, talking about William Byrd.

    There's certainly no hint of wastefulness there, nor of returning whence one came.
    If I saw that, I would say the writer meant prodigious - prolific rather than generous or wasteful.
     

    Edinburgher

    Senior Member
    German/English bilingual
    so prodigal with his talents ... certainly no hint of wastefulness
    Indeed not.
    If I saw that, I would say the writer meant prodigious
    That thought crossed my mind too, but WRD does also have
    giving or yielding profusely; lavish (usually fol. by of or with)
    and
    lavish in giving or yielding
    among its definitions of prodigal.

    Lavishness seems to be a common factor between this meaning and wastefulness.
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    Consequently it is with this, rather than with the aggregation and synthesis of disparate items of previous work and the distillation from them of new insights, that the volume is largely concerned. It is a very mixed bag, which is not surprising for a composer so prodigal with his talents over so wide a field. Oxford Early Music Magazine, talking about William Byrd.

    There's certainly no hint of wastefulness there, nor of returning whence one came.
    That's adjective meaning 4 in the OED, TT:
    a. That has, gives, or yields something on a lavish scale; generous, copious, abundant.

    b. Having or providing a lavish amount of a resource or quality; generously or abundantly supplied with. Also: extravagant or unrestrained in the provision of something, the performance of an action, etc.


    The definition I quoted in post 13 was adjective meaning 2.

    Me, I rather like adjective meaning 5:
    English regional and Welsh English (Pembrokeshire). Proud.
     

    JulianStuart

    Senior Member
    English (UK then US)
    That's adjective meaning 4 in the OED, TT:
    a. That has, gives, or yields something on a lavish scale; generous, copious, abundant.

    b. Having or providing a lavish amount of a resource or quality; generously or abundantly supplied with. Also: extravagant or unrestrained in the provision of something, the performance of an action, etc.


    The definition I quoted in post 13 was adjective meaning 2.

    Me, I rather like adjective meaning 5:
    English regional and Welsh English (Pembrokeshire). Proud.
    Perhaps some spooky language at a distance (etangled entymology?) happening here :)
     

    Roxxxannne

    Senior Member
    English (northeastern US)
    The MSS of the Bible used a particular Koine Greek word that must have existed prior to the translation, and the meaning then becomes a description of the event it allegedly describes.
    I think there is not much doubt that it means "wasteful; spendthrift" but that it has come to mean "the wanderer returns after having a good time," by virtue of misdirection. Such is evolution.
    The koine Greek for Luke 15:13-14 is
    kai met' ou pollas hemeras sunagogon panta ho neoteros huios apedemesen eis choron makran, kai ekei dieskorpisen ten ousian autou zon asotos. Dapesantos de autou panta egeneto limos ischura kata ten choran ekeinen ...
    And after not many days the younger son, gathering everything together, left home for a distant land, and there he threw his money around* living in a spendthrift way.** After he had used up all he had, a severe famine came over the land ...

    *a loose translation of 'dieskorpisen ten ousian'; 'diaskorpizein means 'disperse' in the Septuagint.
    **asotos: several Greek authors prior to Luke use the word with this meaning.

    There's nothing here that means 'wanderer returns home after having a good time.' See my post #10.
    Also, he came home because the fun was over. He had ended up as a pigherder and apparently the pigs would get to the slops before he could have any for himself. (Luke 15:16)
     

    JulianStuart

    Senior Member
    English (UK then US)
    The koine Greek for Luke 15:13-14 is
    kai met' ou pollas hemeras sunagogon panta ho neoteros huios apedemesen eis choron makran, kai ekei dieskorpisen ten ousian autou zon asotos. Dapesantos de autou panta egeneto limos ischura kata ten choran ekeinen ...
    And after not many days the younger son, gathering everything together, left home for a distant land, and there he threw his money around* living in a spendthrift way.** After he had used up all he had, a severe famine came over the land ...

    *a loose translation of 'dieskorpisen ten ousian'; 'diaskorpizein means 'disperse' in the Septuagint.
    **asotos: several Greek authors prior to Luke use the word with this meaning.

    There's nothing here that means 'wanderer returns home after having a good time.' See my post #10.
    Also, he came home because the fun was over. He had ended up as a pigherder and apparently the pigs would get to the slops before he could have any for himself. (Luke 15:16)
    Indeed. The whole thrust of this thread is that the current usage means "returning home" with no hint of meaning that the reason was wasteful spending and running out of money (as the complete description of the parable would require) and it is currently used to mean "wasteful" by fewer and fewer people. It's (one part ot) the meaning of the parable that is now attached to the word prodigal and its original meaning is "rare".
    spend•thrift (spendthrift′), n. a person who spends possessions or money extravagantly or wastefully; prodigal.
     

    Myridon

    Senior Member
    English - US
    The koine Greek for Luke 15:13-14 is
    The Latin phrase for "prodigal son" is not in the verses of the Vulgate either. (I would have guessed verse 24 where the "lost son" part comes from.) The phrase would be part of a heading (the "names" of the parables) and I'm not sure where those headings come from nor when they were created.
     

    Roxxxannne

    Senior Member
    English (northeastern US)
    mid-15c., a back-formation from prodigality, or else from Middle French prodigal and directly from Late Latin prodigalis, from Latin prodigus "wasteful," from prodigere "drive away, waste," from pro "forth" (from PIE root *per- (1) "forward") + agere "to set in motion, drive; to do, perform" (from PIE root *ag- "to drive, draw out or forth, move"). First reference is to prodigal son, from Vulgate Latin filius prodigus (Luke xv.11-32). As a noun, "prodigal person," 1590s, from the adjective (the Latin adjective also was used as a noun).

    I think there is not much doubt that it means "wasteful; spendthrift" but that it has come to mean "the wanderer returns after having a good time," by virtue of misdirection. Such is evolution.
    The Online Etymological Dictionary is a bit misleading. 'Prodigus' was used by many authors to mean 'wasteful' prior to the Vulgate. 'Prodigus filius' just means 'wasteful son.'
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    Erm... aren't we losing track of the thread topic?
    I don't think so - we've established that Julian is correct in the meaning of "prodigal", discussed its origins and considered the transition to "returning" and concluded that language moves whether we want it to or not. I see it as a success - bonuses all round!
     

    Myridon

    Senior Member
    English - US
    The Latin phrase for "prodigal son" is not in the verses of the Vulgate either. (I would have guessed verse 24 where the "lost son" part comes from.) The phrase would be part of a heading (the "names" of the parables) and I'm not sure where those headings come from nor when they were created.
    Relating this comment more closely to the original topic: As the wording is in the title and not in the text (it doesn't appear in the part of the story where the son is wasting his money away), it's even easier to see how the word became associated with the ending of the story rather than the middle.
     

    natkretep

    Moderato con anima (English Only)
    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    Relating this comment more closely to the original topic: As the wording is in the title and not in the text (it doesn't appear in the part of the story where the son is wasting his money away), it's even easier to see how the word became associated with the ending of the story rather than the middle.
    Erm, that is not actually the ending of the story. The story ends with the father pleading with the elder son, who has gone sulky, to come into the house for the celebrations. Many would now say that the father had two lost sons - one who was prodigal, and one who was not. The story is about two sons, and there to give it the title 'The Prodigal Son' is misleading.
     

    Roxxxannne

    Senior Member
    English (northeastern US)
    I see a parable here about a wandering, lost thread that has been drawn to the meretricious allurements of etymology and literary interpretation and so wasted all its comments.
     

    natkretep

    Moderato con anima (English Only)
    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    The problem is that the title is given to the whole story which involves the two sons. But that is another matter.

    The issue is whether we go for the original meaning, or the apparent meaning derived from Jesus's parable. In the case of Samaritan, for example, we have certainly moved to the latter (not someone from Samaria, but someone who is kind to strangers in trouble).
     
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