I’d no more than arrived at a party not long ago when two friends accosted me with a query.
“Quick!” One said. “What’s the meaning of the word parsimony?”
With no time to think, I blurted out, “Looking down one’s nose at another.”
“Ha!” the other exclaimed. “She thought that too!”
“We had an argument about it, so I looked it up,” the first said. “It actually means stingy.”
After hearing the correct meaning, I recalled that years before, I had come across the word in the Reader’s Digest Word Power quiz, where four definitions are provided to choose from. I’d chosen something like highfalutin (now there’s a juicy word that worked its way up from slang to stand as an equal with its brothers; a very American word), but it was not the right choice.
It stuck in my mind because I’d been surprised to learn that I’d confused the word’s meaning all those years. However, it obviously didn’t stick well enough to leap out when I needed it in a hurry.
Remembering this, I said, “You know, if I’m not the only one who thinks this word means snooty, then there must have been a crossing of the terms, in literature, or some other generalized medium, that influenced a number of people to think differently about this word.”
That idea was agreeable, and I suppose the two combatants have stopped thinking about it since, but I haven’t. It gnawed on me. I went to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) online, since the OED is tomes long (the dictionary's latest, complete print edition, second edition, 1989, was printed in 20 volumes; the current effort will probably never be printed but only accessible online).
The online site has the well-earned hubris to call the OED “the definitive record of the English language,” and it probably is as definitive as any organization can be, but considering the lightening speed at which we create new words and extend or bend the meaning of older ones, it’s a daunting task that none can truly maintain in real time.
If you haven’t used it, and you are a practicing or would-be wordophile like myself, I urge you to visit. (Yes, wordophile is a word: Find it in Merriam Webster’s book of new and slang words).
The OED’s beauty isn’t only in its 291,500 entries, nor in its attempts to root out word origins, which is what brings it near and dear to my etymologistic heart. For parsimony, it lists: “late Middle English: from Latin ..., from parcere 'be sparing'”.
The Online Etymology Dictionary goes further, citing not just parsimony but parsimonious: “1590s, from Latin parsimonia "frugality, thrift" ... Not originally with the suggestion of stinginess.”
This last bit provided me with a sense of intrigue and a feeling that I was on the right track.
But as I was saying, my love for the OED stems most deeply from its examples of use. There is usually a sentence allowing the reader to see how the word might fit into language. Examples sell the word to the reader, in a sense, much as a model sells a dress on the catwalk.
At any rate, what I found was: “Extreme unwillingness to spend money or use resources: a great tradition of public design has been shattered by government parsimony.”
Reading further, I began to understand why my friend and I might have mixed the meaning. Here are more examples of the use of the word:
n He argues that a ruler who wishes to avoid a reputation for parsimony will find that he needs to spend lavishly and ostentatiously.
n If it seems that way, it is only because of the Puritanism, the pious emotional parsimony, of our American era.
n We have since paid a terrible price for that parsimony, as those now attending the inquests into the deaths of their loved ones at Paddington will attest.
Aha! And here, in just a few examples, I can see how the word parsimony may well be interpreted to be related to wealth, to a sense of entitlement, and thus, to looking down one’s nose at others. After all, if a choice few who have the reins of money choose to withhold it from the many who don’t, it will be seen as elitism, whatever the true motivation. Thus, parsimony becomes tied to snootiness. Done and done.
Readers gain their understanding of language through reading literature, not through looking up words in dictionaries. Dictionaries are the go-to guide for writers, for lovers of language, and for those who desire exactness of language. Liken a dictionary and actual use of language to Miss Manner’s Rules and the typical dinner table usage.
Understanding this, I will nevertheless attempt to use the word parsimony as it was intended, because I respect words. Still, Lewis Carroll, an Oxford man himself, understood the human condition when he wrote this in his second Alice book, “Through the Looking Glass and What Alice found There:”
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."  

Carla Barber is a McPherson resident.