In a word: penurious

July 14, 2014|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word: 


You can be poor, penniless, strapped, hard up, skint, or stony broke. But if you want to add a Latinate dignity to your impoverishment, you could be penurious (pronounced puh-NOOR-e-us). It comes from the Latin penuria, "want," "need," from which we also get penury, "poverty." 

We have had penurious in English since the sixteen century. From Spenser's Faerie Queene, the OED cites, "Die rather would he in penurious paine ... Then his foes loue or liking entertaine."

A related sense from the same era is "scanty" or "meager." From Wordsworth's Excursion (The OED read it so that you don't have to): "A leaky dam, Framed for enabling this penurious stream To turn a slender mill."

But since you know that the meanings of words are not necessarily stable, you will not be surprised to find that that "mean," "scanty," sense has leaked over into a completely different sense, "stingy," "parsimonious." Thus the OED cites the Marquis of Salisbury in 1894: "Lord Kelvin limited the period of organic life upon the earth to a hundred million years, and Professor Tait in a still more penurious spirit cut that hundred down to ten." 

If you want to use the "stingy" sense instead of the "penniless" sense, you will need to make your meaning clear in context. And vice versa. 

Example: From "In Search of Lost Identity" by Joseph A. Harriss in the March 2010 edition of the American Spectator: "Then too, most French are only one or two generations removed from village life and penurious peasantry."

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