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


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.”

  1. Andrea Devine April 29, 2016 at 6:29 pm

    Russell’s June 2015 comments are interest, relevant, and probably true.

    Kat of 2011 asks “…why do prodigious, prodigal and prodigy all start with prodi?

    Excellent question. Prodeo (Latin) means to go forth, come forth, come forward. The Latin definition fits quite well with the “prodigal” son, usage as described by Mr. Russell.

    A “prodigy” is someone extraordinary (and young?), ahead of his age (or time), who comes forward with marvelous ideas, knowledge, or achievements.

    Apparently, “prodigious” means simply large. I know this because Mark Twain, truly the greatest American writer, uses “prodigious” with prodigious frequency! And meaning “a lot of…! ” I will not challenge Mr. Clemens on questions of vocabulary, and, indeed, his use of the word confirms its meaning in English as “large.”

    I grew up with the instinct, however, that prodigious had to be related to productive. These instinctive definitions we develop are often right, but, sometimes they’re not quite right! For example, I believed that a “prodigious apple tree” was an apple tree that produced a lot of apples. (Kind of a prodigy apple tree!?) But no. A prodigious apple tree probably means, usually means, a BIG apple tree (regardless of how many apples it produces).

    And so much for language. It develops from Greek, Latin, and so many other languages, and often its history and roots reveal its meaning, but sometimes not exactly.

    I still believe it would be nice if prodigious did mean “producing a lot,” but I’m open-minded, liberal, and ready to go with the times (i.e., usage), and…if Mark Twain thinks prodigious means “big,” so will we all. No problem. 🙂

  2. Russell July 26, 2015 at 6:14 pm

    It appears more likely that prodigal has retroactively become a word to describe bad behavior. In the story the son, a Jew, ends up as a swine herd and is almost tempted to eat the swill they eat because he’s so destitute. This job itself describes that he could not go any lower in society because pigs were unclean. Even beggars enjoyed status as ‘kosher’. The exceptional outcome of the story is that the son returned at all. When most in such a situation would wallow in their shame and not return (to God) this son recognized that even his father’s servants had plenty of food and so his desire was to return and beg for even a lowly position with his father, as a servant. The fact that he returned at all is what makes him a prodigy. Also, prodigal is not used within the bible to describe the son. It’s simply the common name of the tale. The story is an example of the wealth of God’s love when the sinner returns regardless of the depths of the fall. It is to describe how THAT act, the act of returning, is of great note and worth. The boy was a prodigal because most would not return. Most who fall find themselves so ashamed to return. Their pride keeps them from returning. What they don’t realize is that God will treat them as if they never left. So at the end of the story, when the one brother who never left gets angry it is unjust. He doesn’t recognize that the father is so happy for the return because it was so exceptional and it no way displaced the son who had stayed. That also reflects a self-righteous attitude which is certainly a source for further contemplation.

    Even prodigious refers to something of ‘”exceptional” size. Common usage of prodigal has come to mean “bad behavior” but it’s just as real a definition as those for “de-thaw,” “irregardless,” and “Machiavellian”. Words improperly used by so many people that they exist without regard to history or reason.

  3. kat sluder September 1, 2011 at 10:39 pm

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