spendthrift ‘penurious person’

Benita Bendon Campbell passes on this wonderful bit from Cathy Guisewites’s strip Cathy:

Here we get a series of ‘penurious’ items: cost-conscious, penny-pinching, prudent, budget-minded. In the midst of these comes spendthrift, clearly intended to convey ‘penurious’, though in fact its standard use is to refer to a profligate spender.

How does this happen? Well, spendthrift has thrift in it, suggesting thrifty. ‘Thrifty in spending’ and all that. People are forever trying to figure out the meanings of multi-part words from the meanings of their parts, but that doesn’t always work. As in this case.

6 Responses to “spendthrift ‘penurious person’”

  1. Emily Says:

    Curiously, I used to experience a similar confusion over the word “squander”, thinking it meant “save or hoard money” instead of the opposite. Probably because it sounded vaguely like “squirrel away”.

  2. John Cowan Says:

    The OED clears this up nicely: thrift was originally closely associated with thrive, and meant ‘prosperity, success’; later ‘earnings, gain, profit’, and only later ‘economy, frugality’. A spendthrift, then, is someone who spends his earnings (the second sense above) without regard to economy (the third sense).

  3. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To John Cowan: the OED answers a question — how did spendthrift come to mean what it does? — that I didn’t ask in my posting, and I didn’t ask it (though I checked the OED, of course, to satisfy my own curiosity) because it wasn’t germane to the points, which are that in general usage spendthrift means ‘profligate’ and not ‘penurious’ and that Guisewite has associated the thrift part of spendthrift with thrifty.

  4. meg Says:

    My parents had only two great arguments when I was a kid, both over words. One was about what precisely “impeach” means (guess what year it was?), and the other was about “spendthrift.” Nowadays I make plenty of mistakes, but never with those two words. (Actually, few of my mistakes are about semantics — it would be unseemly for an English professor.)

  5. misterfricative Says:

    Ha! Well I learned something here today: I thought ‘penurious’ simply meant ‘poor; lacking in money’ I had no idea that it [also? primarily?] meant ‘frugal’.

  6. Edward Campbell Says:

    Lawyers, that cherished group, are familiar with “spendthrift.” Trust agreements historically have contained clauses known as “spendthrift clauses.”

    The wealthy, controlling husband wished to provide for his wife and children, but believed they were spendthrifts. He and his lawyer would not fail to include such a clause in the Trust. The clause prevents a creditor from suing the trustee to obtain repayment from the trust assets.

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