Profligate: A Favorite of Political Reporters and Grad Students

Profligate is far from common in everyday language but there's one group that's very familiar with its meaningÔøΩ grad school applicants. Prospective students must score well on the GRE to get into their preferred schools, and profligate is considered a "high frequency word" on the exam. To them, it's just one of 100 or so complex English words that could show up in the Verbal Reasoning section on test day. However, the word has an interesting history worth exploring.

As it stands, profligate means  "wildly extravagant, completely given up to dissipation and licentiousness, shamelessly immoral". Often, it's used interchangeably with words like debauched, degenerate, and iniquitous. Its meaning is crystal clear now but that wasn't always the case.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, profligate first surfaced in the 1520s and was derived from the Latin word profligatus, which meant  "destroyed, ruined, corrupt, abandoned, dissolute". Profligatus was the past participle of profligare. The latter word breaks down to pro- and fligare, which translate to  "down, forth" and  "to strike", respectively. For some 200 years, profligate meant run down or overthrown. It was commonly used to describe those defeated in battle.

However, in 1779, profligate went through a rebirth. The word's definition shifted to  "ruined by vice", a meaning that was first broached in in the early 1600s. The second meaning stuck.

Aside from hopeful GRE test takers, a small collection of political and economic reporters have adopted profligate, almost exclusively to describe the spending habits of those in government positions.

"Profligacy is not the problem," reads the headline of a 2011 article in The Economist. The article argued that mismanagement of the EU's budget was not to blame for financial crises in countries like Greece, Spain, and Ireland. That same year, The Atlantic writer James Joyner connected the 2008 economic crisis to the  "profligate spending under Bush and a Republican Congress". And, The Nation detailed the  "profligate spending" of a powerful attorney and lobbyist who was convicted of tax evasion.

Though, it's important to note that profligate isn't always used in a financial context. In  "The gayest cook in the Castro", an October piece from the San Francisco Chronicle, writer Jonathan Kauffman uses the word to describe a deli manager who engaged in reckless gossip.

It seems profligate has become a word with a very specific, and rather negative, purpose in modern reporting. But surprisingly, there are still a few English purists out there who are holding on to the word's original meaning.

"Chelsea battle back at Etihad Stadium to beat profligate Manchester Ct," reads a headline from IPP Media. It's a peculiar choice for an article about soccer. However, in the given context, it's humorous and descriptive. The reader doesn't need to scroll to the bottom to understand the quality of Manchester's performance during this match.

For the most part, there's little confusion about profligate's meaning. Be it eager college grads hoping to continue their education or reporters speaking truth to political power, profligate has a very specific use in modern writing. However, given usage examples like those from IPP Media and the San Francisco Chronicle, it seems the word may have yet another evolution in store.

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