Easily Confused Words: Prodigy and Prodigal (Hint: “Prodigal” is BAD)

Jen Dziura —  April 16, 2011 — 1 Comment

prodigy ≠ prodigal

A prodigy is an extraordinarily talented person, especially a child genius. For instance, Doogie Howser, of the TV show, “Doogie Howser, M.D.”

Prodigal is an adjective meaning “wastefully or recklessly extravagant,” or a noun meaning “a wasteful person.” This is Rembrandt’s painting “Return of the Prodigal Son,” based on a story from the Bible.

The guy on his knees is the prodigal one, but in the painting, he’s not being prodigal — he’s repenting for being prodigal.

The pith of the story is this: A man has two sons. Younger son: “Hey Dad, I know you’re not dead yet, but can I have my inheritance now anyway?” The munificent father gives the son the money, and the son goes off and spends it on wine and women, that sort of thing (what a libertine!) Then, famine strikes! The son becomes desperately poor and has to herd pigs. When it gets really bad, he decides to go back home and beg for a job as his father’s servant. But before the son can even ask, the father is already kissing him and having the servants dress him in fine robes and “kill the fatted calf” for a celebration. The older, obedient, non-prodigal son gets kind of pissed — nobody’s throwing a party for him, so why are they throwing a party for his jerk brother? We’ll leave aside the religious lesson (hint: the Dad is like God!), but the prodigal part is the younger son wasting all his money.

In sum, prodigal and prodigy are not at all the same thing! If I hear one more person tell me that prodigal means “genius,” I will be filled with a prodigious indignation!

Oh, I almost forgot. Prodigious isn’t the same as prodigy or prodigal — it just means “large.”

Jen Dziura

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Jennifer Dziura is Manhattan Prep's GRE Blog Editor and Lead Content Developer. She writes books and curricula for the GRE, and is the author of Manhattan Prep's 500 Essential Words and 500 Advanced Words flashcard sets. Also a GMAT and SAT expert, Jennifer uses her obviously copious spare time to co-host an adult spelling bee in a bar and travel to colleges and universities to give humorous talks about philosophy and punctuation. She is working on a book about speed mathematics.

One response to Easily Confused Words: Prodigy and Prodigal (Hint: “Prodigal” is BAD)

  1. So, why do prodigious. prodigal and prodigy all start with prodi?

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