What Is a Prodigal Son? – Meaning, Definition and Origin

Photo of author

Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

The biblical parable of the Prodigal Son is well known to most people, even if they are not of a religious nature. In fact, the title of the parable has since become a popular expression to describe a person who has gone off on their own in the world and come back to their humble beginnings to share what they have learned. However, this use suggests a positive connotation when the word prodigal is anything but.

How far from the original message has the term prodigal son strayed? Let’s explore the origins and meaning of this expression so you can use it properly in your speech and writing.

What Is the Story of the Prodigal Son?

What Is a Prodigal Son Meaning Definition Origin

In the biblical parable of the Prodigal Son, a son receives his inheritance and travels to a distant country, wastes all his money in wild extravagance, becomes desperately poor, returns to his father, and is received with open arms.

Prodigal, here and elsewhere, means rashly or wastefully extravagant, and the son within the story is exactly that. However, the son recognizes his waste and is shamed by his behaviors within the story, returning to his father to humbly ask if he may work in the fields as one of his father’s servants as penance for his wasteful behaviors.

The father is so overjoyed at the return of his son, who has been gone for so long. He orders that the fattened calf (a calf raised for celebration) be butchered to celebrate his son’s return. The oldest son is angry at this, asking his father why they are celebrating his brother’s return, who has been shameful in his behavior while he has always been respectful and devoted to him. The father takes his oldest into his arms and exclaims that all that is his belongs to him but that his youngest son, who was dead and lost, is now alive and found.

The story is a lesson not only in forgiveness and a father’s love for his son but is an analogy of losing a child to temptation. Upon the son’s return, the son expresses his remorse for turning away from his family and beliefs, and the welcome he receives is symbolic of God’s love and forgiveness for all who ask for it.

Origins of Prodigal Son

Prodigal Son Ngram
Prodigal son usage trend.

The Gospel of Luke, within which the Prodigal Son appears, was written in approximately 85 AD and was likely originally in the Greek language.

The word prodigal is from the 16th century, originating from the Latin prodigus, meaning “wasteful,” and prodigere, meaning “to drive away or waste.” It is commonly accepted that the Bible’s translation inferred the story’s title and used prodigal as an acceptable description of the returned son’s behaviors.

What Is the Modern Use of Prodigal Son?

The phrase prodigal son has somewhat strayed from its biblical associations in modern use. Today, it usually focuses on aspects of the parable involving the son’s wandering and eventual return, and it ignores the part about extravagance and wasteful spending.

The expression is overwhelmingly used to describe the return of an individual who has left their hometown (or similar) and returns to use the education or wealth they have accrued to better their community. This misuse truly is a shame since the original intent of the parable is so much more meaningful and describes an individual’s growth and maturity through the recognition and remorse of their irresponsible behaviors.

Take these modern media publications as examples of the misuse of the term:

  • That changed once prodigal son Willie Taggart returned from Stanford to take over his alma mater. [News Enterprise]
  • The largest corporate prodigal son in the history of technology stocks has taken a leave of absence from his role as CEO of Apple. [Hawke’s Bay Today]

How Is Prodigal Defined?

Prodigal is literally defined as “given to extravagant expenditure, lavishness and wasteful.” Its meaning has not changed in over 500 years, but when used as part of the term prodigal son, it has taken on a varied modern meaning.

How to Use Prodigal Son Properly in a Sentence

To stay true to its parable roots, use prodigal son in the following way:

  • His behaviors and squandering of opportunities in his youth eventually caught up to him, forcing him to recognize toxic traits and return as the prodigal son to his responsibilities.
  • She welcomed him into the home with open arms, as if welcoming a returned prodigal son, praying he was wiser, more experienced, and humbled by his previous transgressions.
  • He was a liability, a prodigal son who squandered family inheritance and felt little to no remorse for his actions when confronted by them.

Let’s Review

The term prodigal son originates from the biblical parable describing the return of a child who has squandered his inheritance and is shamed by his irresponsible behaviors, asking for his father’s forgiveness upon his return.

The modern use of the term is often incorrect, highlighting a person who is successful upon their leaving of a home or location and returns to use their gained knowledge to help their family or community. This misuse negates the deep analogy the term implies, and you should know the story’s true meaning and term to use it more appropriately.

To use it correctly, use the prodigal son as an analogy or symbol to highlight the growth or maturity of an individual upon their recognition of poor behaviors.