• Marked by wastefulness, extreme spending, or unnecessary extravagance
  • Careless with money or funds
  • Giving or providing generously or lavishly


Generosity is nice, but isn't there a point when it becomes too much? Giving money to someone in a tight spot is a wonderful act, but it's always wise to give some thought to one's expenditures. When a person's spending is no longer done with a specific intent to help someone or accomplish something, he or she is perhaps better described as prodigal. This usage of resources without proper consideration can be a dangerous business: being prodigal can lead to much more (or much less) in return than what one expects.

Prodigal is most often used as an adjective to describe something that is characterized by unrestrained or unwise lavishness or spending, especially of money. Thus, a person who is prodigal would be likely to spend money recklessly or to be wasteful in other areas. Prodigal can also be applied to an event or situation that is overly extravagant or that wastes resources in a way that is generally over-the-top. These usages of prodigal can often imply a sense of foolishness, inexperience, or even impending (and perhaps deserved) doom. A third, less common usage has a slightly more positive connotation. In this sense, the word is often used in conjunction with "of" to describe something that provides generously or produces a large amount of something (such as a harvest that is prodigal of quality crops).

Example: On the eve of Election Day, the incumbent president of the luxury wine tasting club provided his constituents with a prodigal gala complete with eight-course meal.

Example: Within a month after the start of the semester, many prodigal college students have learned a hard lesson about the value of money..

Example: The cheesy movie was prodigal with groan-inducing puns.

Derivative Words

Prodigious: This derivative is an adjective or adverb that is used to describe something that is ample in quantity, often to an extent that is incredible or unexpected.

Example: Simon's prodigious intelligence allowed him to have mastered multivariable calculus by the age of eleven.

Prodigality: The noun form of prodigal describes the degree to which someone or something is wasteful or excessive.

Example: Gazing at the garbage cans overflowing with unread books, Jeremy was astounded by his neighbors' prodigality.

Prodigally: The adverb form of prodigal characterizes an action as unnecessary or improvident.

Example: The overnight millionaire celebrated her new-found fortune by prodigally tossing handfuls of coins as she strolled down the street.


Like many of the words we use so profligately in the English language, prodigal has its roots in the Romance family of languages, and is thought to have originated in the mid-15th century. Most likely it comes to us from the Latin prodigere, formed from the roots pro ("forth") and agree ("to drive"), thus indicating that prodigal implies the willful divesting of one's funds. Early forms of the word are also seen in Middle French (prodigal) and the Latin term prodigus, which means "wasteful" and is one of the closest direct translations. The first usage of prodigal in its adjective form is thought to be in the Latin term filius prodigus, which refers to the "Parable of the Prodigal Son" told by Christ in Luke 15:11-32.

In Literature

From Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Act I, Scene III:

Maria: Ay, but he'll have but a year in all these ducats:
he's a very fool and a prodigal.

Here, the character Maria is using the word prodigal as a noun (a usage that has mostly fallen out of practice today) to criticize the taste in friends of her uncle, Sir Toby Belch. The friend in question, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, is unintelligent and imprudent about spending his copious fortune. In fact, we later learn that Sir Toby's friendship with Sir Andrew is largely based on the latter's pecuniary assets.

Prodigal Son

Perhaps the most famous usage of prodigal is in reference to a biblical parable attributed to Jesus Christ in Luke 15:11-32, often referred to as "The Parable of the Prodigal Son."

In the story, Christ describes a wealthy man with two sons, the younger of whom requests (decidedly disrespectfully) that he be granted his inheritance early. The father assents, and the younger son leaves home, whereupon he soon "wast[es] his possessions with prodigal living." Left broke and starving, he becomes a pitiful indentured servant for a short time, and finally, when he can take no more, he returns to his father and begs to return to his household. The father immediately forgives his impecunious younger son, and is so glad to have him home that he even prepares a special feast in his honor. The older son, dissatisfied and confused about what he perceives as his father's welcoming of his brother's improvidence, objects. However, the father reminds his older son that "'all that I have is yours,'" and that the simple fact that the younger, prodigal son had returned and could be with them again was cause enough for celebration.

The story represents the Christian belief that all sinners can be forgiven if they sincerely return to their faith, and that the grace of God is open to all believers, even if they must repent. The parable has inspired many derivatives in literature and film, and the expression "Prodigal Son" is often used to refer to a person who has returned after a long or significant absence.


  • Someone who's prodigal spends more than is optimal.


Finances, Waste, Parables, Spending

Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of prodigal. Did you use prodigal in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.