What is it that makes the prodigal son ... prodigal? For a lot of people, it's the fact that he left and came back. But that's not really the case. And the misuse of prodigal doesn't sit well with journalist Andrew Haeg. Andrew is senior producer of Public Insight Journalism at American Public Media and a regional correspondent for The Economist magazine. Haeg joined us on Grammar Grater to talk to us more what it is to be prodigal.
According to Haeg, prodigal is one of those words that gets defined by its context. The word has been popularized by a story from the New Testament, in a parable about a son who spends his entire inheritance on "riotous living," but eventually comes back to his father penniless and repentant.
Because of this parable, a lot of people think prodigal simply means to go away and come back, but that's not the whole story.
The New Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines prodigal as an adjective meaning wastefully extravagant. "The prodigal son wasn't prodigal because he left and returned," Haeg says. "It's because he spent all of his dad's money."
Haeg acknowledges that it makes sense people have come to think of prodigal as "returning." Occasionally one even sees headlines that use prodigal in this way, and Haeg cites one from last June that appeared in an Indiana newspaper:
"Prodigal Children" rejoin schools
The article tells the story of three school board members who had left the Richmond school district, but then had chosen to return.
"Now, just that facttheir going away and coming backdoesn't make them prodigal," Haeg explains. "But while away had they, say, been blithely spending money ... then they would be prodigal."
In the podcast, Haeg describes another example of a newspaper headline that uses the more colloquial sense of prodigal.
Haeg reminds us that prodigal should not be confused with similar-sounding words like prodigy or prodigious. "A prodigy is a person with exceptional talent," he says. "And prodigious means impressively large in size, output or production."
Given those diverse meanings, Haeg provides an example of how all of these words could be used in a single sentence. "If you ever have occasion to talk about a spendthrift young piano star who is kicking out a symphony a week," he says, "you could say he is a prodigious prodigal prodigy."
Sources: : Holy Bible: 21st Century King James Version; The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.
Music from this Episode: "Prodigal Son" by The Rolling Stones; "We Can Work it Out" by Stevie Wonder.