How many times have you read, or heard in films, the phrase ‘The prodigal son returns’?
Not only is it a little tired and predictable, people tend to use it wrongly.
Consider this scenario:
A person comes back after a long time away or someone is welcomed back after a family falling-out; it’s said to be ‘the return of the prodigal son’.
What does ‘prodigal’ mean?
The reference is to a story in Judaeo-Christian texts. There are three points in the story:
A. The son leaves his father’s house after asking for his share of the inheritance early
B. He lives it up, quickly goes through all the money, and then falls into poverty
C. He goes home, repentant, and his father forgives him and lets him stay.
In fact, only B has anything to do with being ‘prodigal’.
The word means ‘recklessly and wastefully extravagant’.
A son (or anyone else) can be extraordinarily prodigal without going anywhere and certainly without ‘returning’, repentant or otherwise.
Similarly, a son, a daughter or anyone else, can be estranged from the family and return after decades, without ever being ‘prodigal’.
The English word comes from prodigus, a Latin word meaning ‘lavish’. The son in the story was prodigal because he spent lavishly and thoughtlessly.
Prodigious and prodigies
You might think the word ‘prodigious’, which we often mistakenly use to mean massive or vast in amount or size, would be related to ‘prodigal’, but it isn’t.
‘Prodigious’ comes from the Latin prodigium, which means a sign or omen that creates wonder and astonishment.
If someone eats a prodigious amount of food, ‘prodigious’ doesn’t actually refer to the extravagant or lavish amount of food; it simply signals how amazed we are that the person managed to cram it all in.
We are amazed by child ‘prodigies’ for the same reason: that they have crammed in so much talent and we are astonished by their abilities.
The word ‘prodigy’ has nothing at all to do with ‘prodigal’.
English! Such a prodigious language. Wow!
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