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Spendthrift

Q From A N Page, Maryland: About spendthrift: I have often wondered how thrift applied to spend can end up being someone who is not thrifty. Any suggestions?

A It’s an interesting collision of ideas to us now. That’s because we think of thrift as the state of using one’s money and other resources carefully. But thrift is closely connected with thrive, which comes from an Old Norse word meaning to grasp or seize; this evolved into the idea of achieving prosperity, success and good luck, or of having achieved it, a sense that thrive still has. So thrift was the state of being prosperous. Only later under Puritan influence was thrift seen as frugality, an essential prerequisite for prosperity. The word spendthrift predates this shift in sense. Literally it means somebody who has spent his prosperity, that is, thrown away his accumulated wealth.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 6 Jan. 2001

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 6 January 2001.