- adj. wastefully extravagant.
“Prodigal” may be one of the most frequently misused words in the English language, and it’s all the Bible’s fault. Because the Bible is a rich part of the western world’s literary tradition, even for people who are not believers, the story of the “prodigal son” (Luke 15:11-32), or at least the phrase “prodigal son” has entered into our cultural consciousness in reference to someone who goes away and eventually returns home. Which is, of course, not at all what it means.
In fact, the phrase “prodigal son” doesn’t even exist in the original texts, but English translations of the Bible favored chapter headings, at which point “The Prodigal Son” began to appear on the above passage; you can see it at work in the Douay-Rheims Bible, for instance. For those who aren’t familiar with the story, here it is.
15:11. And he said: A certain man had two sons.
15:12. And the younger of them said to his father: Father, give me the portion of substance that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his substance.
15:13. And not many days after, the younger son, gathering all together, went abroad into a far country: and there wasted his substance, living riotously.
15:14. And after he had spent all, there came a mighty famine in that country: and he began to be in want.
15:15. And he went and cleaved to one of the citizens of that country. And he sent him into his farm to feed swine.
15:16. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.
15:17. And returning to himself, he said: How many hired servants in my father’s house abound with bread, and I here perish with hunger!
15:18. I will arise and will go to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee.
15:19. I am not worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.
15:20. And rising up, he came to his father. And when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion and running to him fell upon his neck and kissed him.
15:21. And the son said to him: Father: I have sinned against heaven and before thee I am not now worthy to be called thy son.
15:22. And the father said to his servants: Bring forth quickly the first robe and put it on him: and put a ring on his hand and shoes on his feet.
15:23. And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it: and let us eat and make merry:
15:24. Because this my son was dead and is come to life again, was lost and is found. And they began to be merry.
15:25. Now his elder son was in the field and when he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing.
15:26. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant.
15:27. And he said to him: Thy brother is come and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe.
15:28. And he was angry and would not go in. His father therefore coming out began to entreat him.
15:29. And he answering, said to his father: Behold, for so many years do I serve thee and I have never transgressed thy commandment: and yet thou hast never given me a kid to make merry with my friends.
15:30. But as soon as this thy son is come, who hath devoured his substance with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.
15:31. But he said to him: Son, thou art always with me; and all I have is thine.
15:32. But it was fit that we should make merry and be glad: for this thy brother was dead and is come to life again; he was lost, and is found.
What “prodigal” refers to here is the son’s lavish spending of his inheritance, of course. The word is actually a 14th-century back-formation from the Middle English prodigiality, acquired via Old French from the Latin prodigus (“wasteful”). Doug Harper purports that the Latin Vulgate Bible refers to a filius prodigus (or “wasteful son”), which is likely what prompted the aforementioned chapter headers during the translations into English; I am unable to find this phrase in the text, though it may have existing as a header in some bound copy of the Vulgate.
Given the sense of scope attached to “prodigal”, one may be tempted to think that the similar “prodigious” (in the sense of “large”) may be related. In fact, “prodigious” and “prodigy” are two related words from an entirely different root, and have no relation to “prodigal”. Prodigious comes from the French prodigieux, from the Latin prodigiosus, which means “strange/wonderful/marvelous”; even that word is an adaptation of prodigium (“sign, omen, portent”). Prodigious in its more common modern sense of “large” is from appropriately 1600. From prodigium we also get “prodigy”, which in its earliest sense was merely an Anglicization of the Latin and which retain the same meaning. Its use to refer to an exceptional child didn’t come about until about 1650.
The reason that “prodigal”, “prodigious”, and “prodigy” are suspiciously similar is that they all use the very common Latin prefix pro- (generally, “forth”), which can also be seen in “professor”, “problem”, and “process”, among others.