It didn’t cost anything. I charged it.

Dear Word Detective: I just found out this week that several people have a different concept of the meaning of the word “spendthrift.” After shopping with a friend, I came home and mentioned to my husband that the girl was a spendthrift. He took it to mean thrifty in her spending whereas I meant it to mean a big spender (spending her thrift, so to speak). The dictionary proved me to be right, but I began asking people what the word meant to them and found several people had to stop and think about it, or had the incorrect meaning as did my husband. Have you found this word to be a problem? Try asking people and see if you get similar results. — Ginger Kinion.

Well, I did try the experiment you suggested, and I must say that the results were indeed surprising. Keep in mind, however, that I live in New York City, Paranoia Capitol of the World, so that fact may have colored the responses of my experimental subjects. In any case, my query to passersby, “What does the word ‘spendthrift’ mean to you?” garnered four replies of “Am I on TV?” and six of “Get away from me,” as well as one offer of a free boxing lesson right there on the corner of 82nd Street and Broadway. The only definite conclusion I was able to draw from my little experiment was that it might be a good idea to move to Iowa.

I have no doubt that if I asked a group of more normal people your question I would receive replies that bear out your theory about the general confusion over what a “spendthrift” is. As it happens, your understanding of the basic logic of the word (“spending her thrift”) is right on the money. The confusion arises because most folks today are not used to seeing “thrift” used in the archaic sense it is in “spendthrift,” where it means “wealth” or “substance.” Such a person also used to be called a “scattergood.”


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