Spendthrift: not what I thought it was

A confession: until very recently I thought a spendthrift was someone who was careful (thrifty) with money.

In reality, as I'm sure you know, a spendthrift is the very opposite - "one who spends money profusely or wastefully; one who wastes his patrimony by foolish or lavish expenditure; an improvident or extravagantly wasteful person" (OED Online).

World Wide Words: Spendthrift

What words have you misunderstood (or if you prefer, reinterpreted)?


Sir Compton said...

I find enormity continues to cause confusion. It means excessive wickedness but is often used primarily to indicate size, a lesser meaning.

Spendthrift is confusing, I agree.

Martin (riverScrap.com) said...

I find it impossible to remember which is the correct definition of spendthrift, just as I'm never sure how to use the term 'trigger happy'.

Is it someone who fires too readily (due to the liberal movement of their fingers), or someone who lets their guard down (due to the lax readiness of their fingers)? Gotta love that ambiguity.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I find enormity only causes confusion when used by those who insist it means "evil". Most people don't think that. If the few who cling to the first meaning would accept that it's changed, as have the meanings of, oh, "nice" or "simple", there would be less confusion. I'm not saying they have to use the "wrong" meaning, but couldn't they just not use it?

garik said...

The Ridger, FCD makes a good point. There is no ultimate arbiter of what words mean; if most people use a word one way, then that's what that word means for most people. Right and wrong don't enter into it, unless you specify some set of norms.

Not that specifying norms isn't a reasonable activity. Academics and journalists do it a good deal, for good reason (before linguists can talk about grammar, it helps to define clearly what they're going to mean by the word). We all do it to an extent, more or less explicitly, — we (generally) do our best to use words in such a way as to cause minimum confusion, which involves give and take: I adjust my usage to conform with yours, but I also expect you to adjust yours to conform with mine, and there are various justifications we might produce for who should give and who should take in a given situation.

But all you can ever really say about a particular usage is that it does or doesn't conform to a particular set of norms. It's a mistake to use enormity to mean "enormousness" only insofar as the speaker thought they were following the same rules as someone who uses it to mean "great evil". It's be just as much as mistake to use it to mean "great evil" if you think you're using the word in the same way as most speakers of the language.