I am used to thinking that it is a good thing for someone to be a prodigy. Mozart, for example.

But yet, this glossary of ancient Roman religion indicates that the ancient Romans felt that prodigies were demonic in nature and should be killed.

At what point in the historical etymology of the word prodigy did the word prodigy begin to have a positive meaning? And why did the word's meaning become positive?

  • 1
    I am not sure whether this should be on History.SE or Latin.SE. As presently phrased, it seems to have little to do with the English language. Jun 12, 2017 at 21:31
  • @TimLymington English is a derivative of Latin, within an historical context. Therefore, this question is on topic for this site.
    – CodeMed
    Jun 12, 2017 at 21:53
  • 1
    English is a derivative of... what?!
    – LjL
    Jun 13, 2017 at 2:36
  • @LjL After the fall of the Roman Empire, European languages descended into the vernacular of each region. This is how the romance languages all have common roots in Latin but yet all also have distinct flavors that resulted from centuries of geographic isolation during the middle ages. ... English, like the other romance languages, is a derivative of Latin.
    – CodeMed
    Jun 13, 2017 at 4:19
  • 1
    @CodeMed English is absolutely not Romance (like Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian...), but Germanic (like German, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic...). It does have a Latin substratum, and an important amount of vocabulary borrowed from French or directly Latin, which doesn't make it Romance.
    – LjL
    Jun 13, 2017 at 16:05

3 Answers 3


The OED lists five senses of the noun prodigy from Latin prodigium. The date range for the examples given for each of them are shown.

  1. An extraordinary thing or occurrence regarded as an omen; a sign, a portent. Now rare. Circa 1450 - 1991

  2. An unusual or extraordinary thing or occurrence; an anomaly; something abnormal or unnatural; spec. a monster, a freak. 1595 - 2004.

3a. An amazing or surprising thing; a wonder, a marvel. 1616 - 1988

3b. A wonderful or outstanding example of a specified attribute, achievement, etc. 1647 - 1993

3c. A person with exceptional qualities or abilities esp. a precociously talented child. Frequently with appositive modifying word, as child prodigy, infant prodigy, etc. 1684 - 1991

Hence, all of them have relatively current entries. However, sense 1 seems to reflect the meaning you describe of a prodigy being "demonic", and in that case there is no entry between 1882 and 1991, and the latter does seem to refer back to a classical matter. Those two examples are given below, and I would therefore deduce that the the omen,sign,portent meaning ceased around the end of the nineteenth century.

1882 F. W. Farrar Early Days Christianity I. 73 The air was full of prodigies. There were terrible storms; the plague wrought fearful ravages.

1991 Classical Q. New Ser. 41 318 The prodigy of Hippokrates' pots overboiling firelessly at Olympia earns immediate disapprobative notice.

  • You have addressed the question of when the sinister connotation lost prevalence. And you have provided sources. I am therefore marking this as accepted and +1. Thank you. But yet somehow even this answer seems unfulfilling. I had hoped that the evidence would show a clear cut answer such as entry into modern era causing the old meaning to lose favor.
    – CodeMed
    Jun 12, 2017 at 22:51
  • @CodeMed Well, I don't suppose there was a certain day on which it stopped, but is just one of the things that the Enlightenment, dating from the seventeenth century in Europe changed. Belief in the demonic didn't cease at 12.00 midnight on a particular Thursday, it happened over the course of two or three centuries.
    – WS2
    Jun 13, 2017 at 5:36
  • It is more that the dates in your answer present a misleading picture. For example a 1991 citation of a translation of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus. A person would have to decompose your sources in order to realize that your 20th century sources are much older.
    – CodeMed
    Jun 17, 2017 at 1:08
  • @CodeMed That is why I did suggest that it probably ceased around the end of the 19th century.
    – WS2
    Jun 17, 2017 at 6:06
  • You did that in the comments but not in your answer.
    – CodeMed
    Jun 17, 2017 at 14:34

The term has different connotations, one is "something abnormal or monstrous" even though it is not the more common:


  • late 15c., "sign, portent, something extraordinary from which omens are drawn," from Latin prodigium "prophetic sign, omen, portent, prodigy," from pro "forth, before" (see pro-) + -igium, a suffix or word of unknown origin, perhaps from the same source as aio "I say" (see adage). Meaning "child with exceptional abilities" first recorded 1650s.


(now rare) An extraordinary thing seen as an omen; a portent. [from 15th c.]

  • 1971, Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, Folio Society 2012, p. 87: John Foxe believed that special prodigies had heralded the Reformation. An extraordinary occurrence or creature; an anomaly, especially a monster;

a freak. [from 16th c.]

An amazing or marvellous thing; a wonder. [from 17th c.]

A wonderful example of something. [from 17th c.]

An extremely talented person, especially a child. [from 17th c.]



Prodigy historically has several meanings, only one of which (the most recent) refers to e.g. child prodigies. The earliest use of prodigy refers to "An extraordinary thing or occurrence regarded as an omen; a sign, a portent. Now rare." (OED). The earliest example they cite for this sense is dated 1450.

The sense of prodigy that Wikipedia is referring to is neither of those senses. Instead, it refers to a different sense, which the OED defines as:

An unusual or extraordinary thing or occurrence; an anomaly; something abnormal or unnatural; spec. a monster, a freak.

The first recorded usage of prodigy in this sense is Shakespeare (1595):

Where is that valiant Crookbackt [crook-backed] prodegie?
Henry VI

This sense still has a negative connotation.

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