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shameless pleading

Splurge

With cheese!

Dear Word Detective:  Where does the word “splurge” come from? I’m thinking “urge” plus “spending,” maybe, though that doesn’t account for the “l.” Sources say it’s a blend of “splash” and “surge,” but that doesn’t make sense to me. — George Klosowski.

Oh, “sources” say that, do they? By golly, you’re right, they do. I looked up “splurge” in several dictionaries, and every one of them suggested a blend of “splash” and “surge,” though most of them preface that with “perhaps.” It’s spooky. Elsewhere in the news (and this is relevant, honest), I read an article the other day that said that residential electric power consumption in the US is leveling off and expected to begin falling soon. That’s pretty odd, considering the multitude of electronic gizmos we have plugged into every outlet these days. Industry “sources” say the drop in consumption is because people have installed more home insulation and have switched over to those godawful compact fluorescent and LED bulbs. Yeah, right. My “sources” (eyes, ears, brain) say it’s because it’s become the standard in many American homes to “splurge” not by going to a fancy restaurant or buying a new car, but by turning on all three lights in the living room. Hey, I didn’t know we still had a dog. Land of the free, home of the 40-watt bulb.

Today we use “splurge” to mean “to spend money extravagantly,” often impulsively. The implication of “splurge” (as opposed to simply “buy”) is that the “splurger” does not ordinarily make such pricey purchases (“If you really get into omelettes, you should splurge and procure a good copper or stainless steel omelette pan,” High Times, 1975). What constitutes “splurging” is, of course, relative to one’s wealth. A hedge fund manager buying a second Lamborghini because the first one got dusty isn’t really “splurging.”

Interestingly, when “splurge” first appeared in English in the mid-19th century, it didn’t necessarily involve buying anything at all. To “splurge” was “to make an ostentatious, showy display; to show off” (“Cousin Pete was thar splurgin about in the biggest, with his dandy-cut trowsers and big whiskers,” circa 1848). “Splurging” in this sense was flaunting one’s finery, parading one’s fashionable taste, “making a splash,” “cutting a flash” or, in the wonderful 16th century phrase, “peacockizing” (behaving like a male peacock strutting about displaying its feathers). Though such ostentatious displays are far from rare today, we don’t usually describe the practice as “splurging.”

That “show-off” sense of “splurge” seems to have faded in popular usage by the time “splurge” came into use in its modern “spend way too much” sense in the 1930s (“When I got around to furnishing my office, I thought I’d splurge on a good 18th Century English armchair,” 1947). As to the origin of “splurge,” it’s possible, as many dictionaries say, that it was simply a blend of “splash” and “surge.” Your theory about “spend” and “urge” seems reasonable, but the fact that the first sense of “splurge” to appear didn’t involve actually purchasing anything does put a big dent in “spend” as an element in the mix.

The same problem, it seems to me, arises when “surge” is proposed as a component of “splurge.” You might say that the later “spend lots of money” sense of “splurge” involves a “surge of desire” for expensive things, but it’s hard to see where the “surge” is when you simply show up at a royal wedding in a silly hat. The “splash” part of that theory, however, does seem plausible, as a “splurger” in the first sense is definitely trying to “make a splash,” i.e., get noticed.

The Oxford English Dictionary prudently, if a bit mysteriously, offers an etymology of “imitative” for “splurge,” meaning that the word developed because its sound seemed evocative of the action of “splurging” in the original sense, i.e., showing off, ostentatiously presenting oneself to onlookers. I think that’s the most reasonable guess, but I’d be surprised if “splash” didn’t also contribute to the birth of “splurge.”

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