I came across this phrase in the following passage:

Two instances of such forays have been particularly noted by scholars. In his essay “Of the Affection of Fathers to Their Children,” Montaigne, sharply criticising aged parents who expect their grown children to be grateful to them and who cling avidly to their possessions, gives powerful voice to the resentment of the young: “It is mere injustice to see an old, crazed, sinew-shrunken, and nigh-dead father sitting alone in a chimney-corner to enjoy so many goods as would suffice for the preferment and entertainment of many children, and in the meanwhile, for want of means, to suffer them to lose their best days and years without thrusting them into public service and knowledge of men.”

Can someone please explain me what it means in the context of this passage and its usage in general?

Link to the original article

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  • It means exactly what the dictionary tells you each word means. – tchrist Jun 15 '14 at 19:19

"For want of means" means "because of a lack of resources". "Want" is derived from Old Norse words for "lacking". (Over time it gained the idea of "need", and from there the modern idea of "desire".) Thus, aside from the more common verb form (e.g. "I want [desire] something"), it may be used as a noun (e.g. "I am in want of cash"). "Means" may refer to the method of accomplishing something, or the resources (often financial) required to accomplish something.

In the context of this passage the writer suggests the older generation, by hoarding resources they themselves are unable to make good use of, creates resentment in the younger generation (who may be able to make more effective use of those resources).

ref: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/want


It means “for lack of money.” In Montaigne’s hypothetical case, it is the offspring who are thus lacking, while the sinew-shrunken father has but hoards the financial resources that would enable his offspring to advance in the world. That the lack is predicated of the offspring and not the father is clearer in the original:

C’est injustice de voir qu’un pere vieil, cassé, et demy-mort, jouysse seul à un coing du foyer, des biens qui suffiroient à l’avancement et entretien de plusieurs enfans, et qu’il les laisse cependant par faute de moyen, perdre leurs meilleures années, sans se pousser au service public, et cognoissance des hommes.


The use of the word want in the phrase is its semi-archaic usage. The archaic usage is still very popular (thereby implying its being archaic an oxymoron), due to the oft quoted 23rd Psalm of the KJV Bible, which starts with,

The LORD is my Shepherd and I shall not want.

Which when translated to more comprehensible modern English would be,

The LORD is my Shepherd and I shall lack not.

Want is due Middle English wanten, to be lacking.

Want is also etymologically related to the word wanton.

On of the connotation of the word means is
(used with a sing. or pl. verb) A method, a course of action, or an instrument by which an act can be accomplished or an end achieved.

Therefore expressing the phrase in modern comprehensible English, for want of means would be

due to lack of ability to afford necessary resources, connections or financial capacity

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