The Grammarphobia Blog

Avarice and greed

Q: In “Tramp the Dirt Down,” a song about Margaret Thatcher, Elvis Costello refers to “all that avarice and greed.” And in the World Party song “Ship of Fools,” Karl Wallinger says that “avarice and greed are gonna drive you over the endless sea.” Is there a difference between avarice and greed? Your answer will settle an argument.

A: The word “avarice” comes from a Latin root meaning to crave (we get “avid” from the same root), and what’s being craved by an avaricious person is wealth or material gain.

The term “greed” refers to another excessive desire for more than you need, but the desire can be for almost anything (food and sex come to mind, but if your aunt collects salt-and-pepper shakers, she could be greedy for ever more salt-and-pepper shakers).

So the phrase “avarice and greed” isn’t redundant. Besides, lyricists get to say whatever they want!

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