Q: I asked you on the air about “spendthrift,” which means the opposite of what one might think, and you promised to look into it. Have you discovered why this odd thing happened?
A: Yes, it’s one more example of the many puzzles, surprises, and muddles that have resulted from changes in our ever-changing language.
The word “spendthrift” refers to someone who spends money recklessly, not wisely as one might expect from the modern meaning of “thrift,” the careful or frugal management of money and other resources.
But in the early 1600s, when “spendthrift” first showed up in English, “thrift” meant, among other things, wealth or savings. Thus, someone who spent his wealth, rather than saved it, was a spendthrift.
Shakespeare uses both “thrift” and “spendthrift” in these senses: “thrift” to mean wealth and “spendthrift” to mean someone who wastes it – that is, if you consider one’s words to be valuables.
In The Merchant of Venice (1596-98), for example, Shylock remarks that “thrift is a blessing, if men steal it not.” And in The Tempest (1610-11), Antonio says: “Fie, what a spendthrift is he of his tongue!”
The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for “spendthrift” is from a 1601 English translation of Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis: “What would he have cost our prodigal spendthrifts, if hee had been taken upon our coasts neere Rome?”
Finally, here’s a 1670 quote from Dryden: “Thus, as some fawning Usurer does feed / With present Sums th’unwary Spendthrift’s Need.”
As I said, “spendthrift” is just one example of the confusion sowed by changes in the language. In my latest book, Origins of the Specious, I discuss many myths and misconceptions that have resulted from the evolution of English.
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