Sunday, March 4, 2007

Sagacious; Profligate v. Prodigal

Sagacious (DD definition link)

This is another not terribly interesting word with a pretty straight etymological line to its usage. From the Latin for "keen, shrewd, or clever", it means "keen, shrewd or clever" still today. That it may also mean "wise" is the only wrinkle, because being clever or shrewd is perhaps more street smarts than book smarts, although since "wise" carries no specific distinction, the "wise" aspect would appear to be an off-shoot of the perception of the keen, shrewd and clever people with whom this word had been associated.

Her sagacious cross-examination skills in the deposition allowed her to trip up the plaintiff into admitting there was no liability to her client. Or his sagacious double talk about the obscured speed limit sign got him out of the ticket.

Profilgate v. Prodigal

A couple of days ago, the word profligate popped up, which usage appeared straightforward on first blush until you delve into the etymology. How did a word with a derivation from the Latin for "to cast down, defeat, overthrow or ruin" or "to strike (down)" or "dash to the ground" end up with a usage about "immorality" or "debauchery"? This has caused me no end of consternation as I have debated the nuances in relation to prodigal, which derives from the Latin for "to drive away, waste". Prodigal is clear: the person recklessly or extravagantly gave away or spent assets (and/or was the person engaged in the activity of giving away or spending such assets). But profligate also has the inherent meaning of wasting, even using "recklessly prodigal" as a definition, although the only possible reference to spending an asset is the recursive definition to prodigal. Therefore, it appears that profligate refers to wasting more than an asset, such as health or sanity or reputation, or wasting an asset in a way that is beyond mere negligence or even recklessness, thus earning the condemnation of society more than being merely a spendthrift, and thus leading to someone to want to strike or cast down the individual for the nature of the behavior. Possibly, a prodigal has an inherent meaning of having atoned for the wasteful conduct, now leading to a reformed life, while a profligate may still be engaging in the wasteful behavior, although I don't think that's the real difference. OED sheds no significant light on the subject, except to make profligate vicious and vile, as well as debauched and immoral. Other dictionaries are less thorough on the etymology to give any specific indication. Most usages of profligate uniformly relate to spending--profligate spending by the military, profligate salaries to CEOs and professional athletes--but these appear to be usages relative to a condemnation that the money being spent is obscene and shouldn't ever be spent, not that it was prodigal, and was perhaps stupidly wasteful. [Ed. note: Just how much cash are we talking about here? Prodigal or really profligate?] The prodigal might not understand that investing in a pyramid scheme was a bad idea that should have involved more due diligence, but the profligate should have known better. Basically, what appears to be coming out now is that profligate earns the condemnation of society, whereas the prodigal may only earn a scolding by the family. So perhaps the effect of profligate affects a larger group of people such as taxpayers or stockholders or ticket buyers. Therefore, by using profligate, the speaker implies that the action is something that society should actively try to stop from happening or continuing to happen, whereas by using prodigal, the speaker only means to chastise the action from a distance. The government's profligate spending on unnecessary "fixes" to computer internet systems shows a fundamental lack of understanding of what the problem is let alone how to really fix it. Ok. It's easy with money because we understand the economic implications. Non-monetary actions are harder. The Plaintiff's counsel's profligate reliance on her client's version of the story was an actionable fraud on the Court. Not quite so sure this rises to the level of "extreme and outrageous" conduct sufficient for profligate. The religious right have dubbed all abortions as profligate. Ok. That works, although perhaps not as eloquently as it could be said otherwise. The justice system has deemed that pedophiles and especially recidivists are among the most profligate criminals. Yes, that works too. To the conventional matchmaker, speed-dating is borderline profligate. Possibly, at least to convey the relative humor value. Well, I think that's enough to get across the point of profligate. Prodigal is so much easier: Spendthrift trusts were established to ensure that prodigal sons and daughter could no longer bring about their own financial demise.

Thank you for your patience... :-)

1 comment:

raf said...

Although totally unsubstantiated, it may be useful to make this distinction: One is prodigal with one's own assets, but profligate with others' assets.