I frequently see bumper stickers with quotations attributed to Mother Teresa that begin with the words "It is a poverty," for example:

It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.

Leaving aside the politics of the sentiment which are obviously irrelevant, why "it is a poverty"? I think it's safe to infer that the intention is negative--roughly "it's a bad thing that"--but the phrase is distinctly off-sounding to my (native Western AmE-speaking) ear, as if it were a calque of an idiom in another language. The closest phrase I can think of that sounds like idiomatic English to me is "It is a poor thing," although even that is a bit formal and old-fashioned.

Mother Teresa spoke English as a second language according to her Wikipedia entry--is there something in particular about her education or origins that would account for this odd expression? I know Google is not a reliable source for collecting data on usage patterns, but it is still interesting that a search on the quoted phrase "it is a poverty" turns up literally no other results where the phrase is used in this sense, only references to the original quote.

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    Being someone who worked with the poor most of her life, and hence may be considered an expert on poverty, she was likely attempting to create a turn of phrase that would lend additional rhetorical weight to the point she was making. More specifically, she was likely coining an aphorism: oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/aphorism Commented May 20, 2015 at 21:51
  • My immediate, intuitive understanding would be that ‘it is a poverty’ here means something along the lines of ‘to do this is to make yourself [morally] poor’. Commented May 20, 2015 at 21:51
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    Combining two sub-entries from Collins poverty ... noun ... 2. scarcity or dearth: a poverty of wit and RHK Websters poverty ... noun ... 2. deficiency of necessary or desirable ingredients, qualities, etc. would seem to license this count usage. Commented May 20, 2015 at 21:56
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    According to the site that claims to be the official site of Mother Teresa she did not actually say that, or it has been paraphrased. motherteresa.org/08_info/Quotesf.html
    – amdn
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 22:44
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    @amdn Interesting. That makes it even weirder. Commented May 20, 2015 at 23:37

2 Answers 2


I should've checked the OED first.

  1. Deficiency in an appropriate or desired quality; inferiority, paltriness, meanness; = poorness n. 3. Formerly also as a count noun.

So it's the same usage as in poverty of imagination (which is something of a journalistic stock phrase, if not rising quite to the level of idiom), or (to give a silly example) I have a poverty of self-control, so I ate all the cookies. "Poverty" in this sense without "of" immediately following is archaic, but not unprecedented:

▸a1387 J. Trevisa tr. R. Higden Polychron. (St. John's Cambr.) (1865) I. 11 (MED), I knewe myn owne pouert, and schamede..after so noble spekers..to putte forþ my bareyn speche.

a1425 (▸c1395) Bible (Wycliffite, L.V.) (Royal) (1850) Prov. vi. 32 He that is avouter schal leese his soule for the pouert [a1382 E.V. miseise; L. inopiam] of herte.

c1450 (▸c1400) Bk. Vices & Virtues (Huntington) 130 (MED), Þe first degree of mekenesse is for to knowe his pouertes and his defautes.

1597 Bacon Ess. v. f. 23v, By imputing to all excellencie in compositions a kind of pouertie or..a casualty or ieopardy.

  • Mother T may also have been playing off people's familiarity with the more common expression "It's a pity that..."
    – Erik Kowal
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 1:33
  • @ErikKowal: Mother T? Really?
    – Tushar Raj
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 6:27
  • @Area51DetectiveFiction - Problem?
    – Erik Kowal
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 8:25
  • @ErikKowal: Just never heard her being referred to like that.
    – Tushar Raj
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 8:43
  • @Area51DetectiveFiction - I hadn't either, but if you Google "Mother T" Teresa, you should bring up circa 13,000 hits (or at least I did here), a considerable number of which feature the term "Mother T".
    – Erik Kowal
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 9:01

The quote is incomplete. I don't recall the exact wording, but is was something like, "It is a particular poverty of the spirit to decide ..." When the bumper sticker first came out, I noticed that version of the quote really did not make much sense, unlike the full quote. Unfortunately, the bumper sticker version is the one that has taken hold.

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