English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Spendy spree

Q: I’ve been hearing/seeing “spendy” used to mean costly or expensive in recent months. It’s in some online dictionaries.  Have you seen this? Any thoughts? I think it’s too cutesy to take seriously, which isn’t to say I haven’t used it myself.

A: Believe it or not, “spendy” has been in use for more than a century. We think it’s a pretty cool word and can’t understand why it’s not more popular, considering that “spendy” has been available for so long.

It’s out there, but not as out as we’d expect. A simple Google search for “spendy” gets more than 800,000 hits, but a search for “pricey” gets 24.5 million.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the adjective originated and is chiefly used in the US. It originally meant “extravagant, spendthrift,” but later another sense was added—“expensive” or “overpriced.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from a May 1911 issue of the Indianapolis Star: “ ‘Come, boys,’ he said in a reckless impulse of sordid profligacy, ‘let’s have a candy raffle…’ ‘That’s awfully sporty and spendy of you.’ ” 

In searches of our own, we found another example from that same year. It appeared in an ad that ran in Edward P. Remington’s Annual Newspaper Directory for 1911: “These papers reach a thrifty and ‘spendy’ people in all sections of Utah.”

And we found further examples from the teens and twenties, including this one from a comic poem in the Saturday Evening Post (1913): “All found they were living a trifle too spendy / For the payment attached to their modus vivendi.”

This more contemporary example from the OED uses “spendy” to describe big spenders. It’s from a March 2002 issue of the Wall Street Journal: “It was an Olympic crowd, not a ski crowd. … That’s not a real spendy crowd. They eat fast food.”

We’ve also found a handful of examples, from the last decade or so, in which “spendy” appears in negative political contexts—“spendy politicians,” “spendy Democrats,” “spendy Congress,” “spendy liberal,” “spendy officials,” and so on. 

But oddly, the few standard dictionaries that recognize “spendy” see it as an adjective that applies to things, not people.

We found the word in three standard dictionaries, always defined as “expensive” or “costly.” None of the three define it as “extravagant” or “spendthrift.” 

And while most dictionaries agree that this is an American usage, we’ve had no trouble finding examples in British writing.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) describes “spendy” as an informal adjective meaning expensive or costly. The fourth edition describes the usage as “chiefly Pacific Northwest,” but that characterization has been deleted from the fifth.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says the term is “chiefly Northwest.” (M-W also gives the comparative form, “spendier,” and the superlative, “spendiest.”)

The Collins English Dictionary, published in Britain, describes the word as a “US” adjective, though the example given is from a British newspaper, the Sunday Times (2002):

“Her magazine, O, might as well be called ‘Never mind the spendy moisturisers get rid of your terrible husband.’ ” 

And one of the later examples from the OED is also from a British publication, Snowboard UK (2004):

“So now you’ve got your selection of kit from our six of the blingest, you’re going to need to get out there and use it in anger—preferably in the poshest, spendiest resort out there for maximum bling effect.”

As for the etymology of “spendy,” we’ve found suggestions online that it’s a blending of “expensive” and “trendy.” But obviously that’s impossible, since “trendy” was nonexistent in 1911.

The OED’s etymology says the adjective-forming “-y” suffix was added to the word “spend.” As usual, the simpler explanation makes much more sense.

Check out our books about the English language