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I have researched this topic a bit. One site suggested that prodigal is having reformed after being wasteful, while profligate is still engaging in such behavior.

However on studying the origin of the words, I found that this might not be correct. The parable of the prodigal son was the first reference of prodigal (from the resources I came across), and the parable is also referred to as the parable of the profligate father. Seems like prodigal is related to immorality somehow.

And studying the etymology of profligate, it seems to be linked to downfall.

What exactly is the difference between the two?

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4 Answers 4

According to MW, both the word profligate and prodigal both have, at their root, the idea of wasteful extravagance:

Profligate: "wildly extravagant ."

and

Prodigal: <1> characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure : lavish;
<2> recklessly spendthrift

It is only by extension (and, I imagine, by their connection to the biblical story) that these words have taken on the secondary meaning of "dissipation and licentiousness". Based on these root meanings, both the son and his father (in the parable of the Prodigal) can rightly be designated by these terms -- the son, because of the way he spent all his earnings; and the father, because of the way he extravagantly bestowed love and forgiveness on his son at his return.

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Could the father in "the parable of the lost son" really be profligate, even in offering love? "Abandoned to vice or vicious indulgence; recklessly licentious or debauched," the Shorter Oxford says; "broken down in morals or decency" (from Latin "to dash to the ground"): Webster's Second. And Dr. Johnson, cited in SOED:

Profligate in their lives, and licentious in their compositions.

Whereas being prodigal is a minor sin in comparison, "wastefully lavish","lavish in the bestowal of things" SOED. Webster's gives it as

One who spends or gives prodigally; a spendthrift; a squanderer; often a repentant waster like the prodigal son; as, to receive the prodigal with joy. Noble prodigals of life. Archbishop Trench.

In the very effective retelling in the Prokofiev/Kochno/Balanchine ballet, the son, after being fleeced by revelers and a siren, crawls back on his hands and knees to the father, who is remote and unbending and only at the last minute will he give his blessing. In the original parable the father sees the son coming from a distance and runs to meet him, to the extreme disapproval of the older brother.

Incidentally the Greek word πορνῶν that the brother utters, usually translated as prostitute or harlot, is catamite in the first entries of Liddell & Scott, becoming genderless in NT usage - bringing to mind perhaps Nietzsche's quip about God's Greek language skills.

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Hmm, I've never heard this story referred to as either "The Prodigal Father" or "The Profligate Father". I've always heard it as, "The Prodigal Son". I just did a Yahoo search and found references to "Prodigal Father", but they all seem to be more like twists on the interpretation rather than serious descriptions. Of course it may be that different denominations call it different things.

In any case, I just re-read the story and the point is that the son was wasteful and irresponsible, not that he was necessarily immoral in a more general sense. There's just one reference to immorality, and that's when his older brother is criticizing him and says to the father that he has "devoured your livlihood with harlots", which is not necessarily to be taken literally; it might be intended to be a hyperbolic criticism.

And by the way, I've long found it curious that it is called "The Prodigal Son". Read the story in context: it's not about the prodigal son; it's about the older brother. The story is addressed to people who criticized Jesus for associating with the disreputable. He replies with several stories which make the point that it is proper to celebrate when the disreputable are helped, and mean-spirited to begrudge such a celebration because you didn't get similar help, when you didn't need help to begin with. The point isn't that the father forgave the prodigal son and welcomed him back. The point is that his older brother didn't.

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Excellent point, how the main lesson of the story relates to (what seems at first glance to be) a relatively minor character. –  J.R. Jul 4 '12 at 0:30
    
I so not see that the word immoral necessarily means sexually immoral. It just means contrary to the accepted moral code. Irresponsibility and wastefulness should be rightly condemned as immoral, in my nannying opinion. –  Barry Brown Jul 4 '12 at 6:07
    
According to a Catholic priest in a sermon a few years back, the key lesson of the story is that the father has such a high capacity for love. –  Ward Jul 4 '12 at 6:08
    
As an aside, note that 'prodigious', from 'prodigy', means 'marvellous or enormous'. An area of possible confusion. –  Barry Brown Jul 4 '12 at 6:11
    
@Barry I didn't mean to imply that "immorality" necessarily refers to sex. That's what I meant by "immoral in a more general sense", i.e. immoral in a sense OTHER THAN being wasteful. If wastefulness is immoral and not just foolish. Anyway, we're supposed to be talking about language and not morals. –  Jay Jul 5 '12 at 7:31

Profligate has a semantic center of gravity that leans more towards general licentiousness and moral degeneracy, whereas Prodigal is more tightly focused, pertaining specifically to extravagance and wastefulness.

You could validly use profligate as an alternative to prodigal, but there are many times when prodigal would not be appropriate to use in place of profligate.

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But according to this parable I am referring to, it was the son who was morally degenerate and called prodigal. The father, on the other hand, turned wasteful because of his love for the son, and was called profligate. –  tanvi Jul 3 '12 at 16:48
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The story is referred to as the prodigal son merely because he wasted his inheritance, not because of his riotous living. It was his prodigality that led to his destitution and eventual return home. If he had been morally profligate and frugal, he would have never returned home and there would be no story. This story is also referred to as the Parable of the Prodigal Father. I have never heard of it referred to as the tale of the Profligate Father -- do you have examples of that? –  Tolerance72 Jul 3 '12 at 20:00
    
Here is the link where i read about the profligate father. onemansweb.org/theology/gospel-of-luke-2010/… –  tanvi Jul 4 '12 at 5:08
    
Thanks for the link, Tanvi. That helps put your question in context. On that page, the author actually reveals that he was not using the "immoral" meaning of profligate, but the "squandering" meaning, when he says: "Technically, there is not much difference between prodigal and profligate. If I bring up my Thesaurus in Ms Word, the meaning for prodigal is given as wasteful, and profligate is given as a synonym." He goes on to explain how the father is wasteful, and squanders his own wealth (and also the other sons' inheritances) by lavishing it upon the son who was insufficiently repentant. –  Tolerance72 Jul 4 '12 at 6:00
    
So that means the story has actually helped attenuate the difference between the two words(as it is not stressing upon the moral degeneracy of the son)! –  tanvi Jul 4 '12 at 16:22

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