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I have always been curious to understand the origin of these two seemingly similar words. Looking at them for the first time, I thought they were synonyms, but ever since I learned of their existence, their meanings only serve to confuse me further.

Does anybody know how these words came into being, and how they ended up becoming antonyms despite (possibly) stemming from the same word root?

  • The following link provides a possible answer, but are there other reasons? worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-spe1.htm – Arvindh Mani Apr 19 '14 at 13:12
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    I think it goes to show that the order of words can matter. I too was confused by this compound word, because it would seem logically that a "spendthrift" (spends all their money) would be equivalent to a "thrifty spender" (saves their money). According to OED, the earliest definitions (~1300) of thrift meant wealth, prosperity and fortune. Hence a "spend+thrift" is someone who spends their fortune. Also in OED, the meaning of being frugal seemed to come about 2 centuries later. Maybe the "spendthrift" was formed with the original meaning and not the later. – tralston Sep 23 '14 at 21:08
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thrift originally meant your savings (a noun), not the adjective "to save or spend carefully".

c.1300, fact or condition of thriving, also "prosperity, savings," from Middle English thriven "to thrive", influenced by (or from) Old Norse þrift, variant of þrif "prosperity,"...

The sense of thriving or prosperity preceded the idea that prosperity was obtained by thriftiness, which was first recorded in the sense of habit of saving, economy in the 1520s.

Spend meaning to pay money (1125–75); Middle English spenden < Latin expendere to pay out, expend) is itself an earlier form spend referring to labor, thoughts, time, etc. (to spend oneself), attested from c.1300.

spendthrift from c.1600, means spend (v.) + thrift (n.) in sense of "savings, profits, wealth." Replaced earlier scattergood (1570s) and spend-all (1550s). From c.1600 as an adjective.

So you are spending your savings or wealth (what makes you prosperous.)

Synonyms are dingthrift and scattergood.

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I copy and paste this article with an audio clip that differs from the text beneath and appears not transcribed.


Spendthrifts are more spendy than thrifty, so the word spendthrift doesn’t seem to make much sense.

This week on That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan discuss the seemingly oxymoronic word spendthrift.

While thrifty refers to being economical with money, spendthrift means the exact opposite—someone who spends money irresponsibly. Curzan explores the etymology of thrifty to get to the bottom of spendthrift.

Thrifty comes from the word thrive, meaning ‘to prosper,’” Curzan explains. “Starting in the 16th century, it also means that someone is thrifty, or frugal.”

However, it is the noun thrift, not the adjective thrifty, which led to spendthrift. Thrift can refer to someone’s earnings, which makes a spendthrift someone who spends his or her income.

When looking up spendthrift, Curzan also found the synonym dingthrift.

“The ding in dingthrift is the same ding we have now, for example, if someone dings your car,” Curzan describes. While the word appears to be obsolete, Curzan hopes Michigan Radio listeners can bring it back.

Will you add dingthrift to your vocabulary? What out-of-date words do you want to resurrect? Let us know by writing a comment below.

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I am British and for me thrifty means to save money, or not to spend money. Spendthrift therefore means to spend your savings. They are opposites, not synonyms.

  • Thanks a lot for your response. Yes, they are synonyms where I come from too. What i meant was that they seem to be synonyms but really aren't, and that has always confused me. – Arvindh Mani Apr 19 '14 at 18:20
  • No, I said they were opposites. They are NOT synonyms. – KCH Apr 19 '14 at 21:58
  • Damn, what did I write? I meant they're antonyms where i come from too. Sorry! – Arvindh Mani Apr 20 '14 at 2:07

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