PRODIGAL: “spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant” — New Oxford American Dictionary

Apart from the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son is probably Jesus’s best-known parable. In the story, a rich man’s son squanders his legacy on wine, women and riotous living, only to return home when the money runs out, starving and truly repentant. The Prodigal Son Returned Home. 

So ingrained in Western culture is this story, we could be excused for thinking the word prodigal means “wayward, gone from home a long time.” Well, no actually, we can’t be excused because also ingrained in Western culture is the dictionary. I can access several lexicons by typing “dictionary” into my browser. I can even call up a dictionary and thesaurus by pressing F12 on my keyboard. We’re talking a pinky’s effort here. So why do so many people, even — gad! — journalists, persist in this wrongheaded definition of prodigal? In a quick Google™ search, I came up with a Time (June 21, 2005) story entitled “The Prodigal Returns” and an International Herald Tribune (April 14, 2006) article entitled “In the Arena: Prodigal returns to Chinese home.” The Time piece chronicles Vladimir Horowitz’s first concert in Russia since he defected; the other similarly recounts Wang Zhizhi’s return to China after leaving the NBA. I suppose from a Communist perspective, any lifestyle in the decadent West qualifies as wastefully extravagant, but I’m not sure that’s what these writers (and their editors) had in minds. 

Admittedly, prodigal is rarely used outside the context of the Prodigal Son parable, so perhaps it’s become a keyword of sorts, triggering the image of a happy reunion after a long spell apart. But the Prodigal Son did not leave because of political oppression; he was selfish. By referring to Horowitz and Wang as prodigals (not “Prodigal Sons,” which would have at least referenced the parable), Time and the International Herald Tribune (the “global edition of the New York Times“) cast them as lascivious good-time Charlies. I mean, the Time article goes on for nine pages! Couldn’t anyone — an intern, since obviously editors can’t be bothered — locate a well-thumbed paperback Merriam-Webster?

I could go on, but that would be — well, prodigal.

— Otto E. Mezzo


P.S.: I’m about to start Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, which is what prompted this entry. Judging from the description on the book jacket, the author seems to be channeling the secondary definition: “having or giving something on a lavish scale” (NOAD), which carries a connotation of generosity. She writes the book is a “hymn to wildness that celebrates the prodigal spirit of human nature.” 

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