Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
I don’t host a lot of parties, but when I do, they’re pretty low-key affairs. My parties could never be described as extravagant — so does that mean that they’re just vagant? What exactly is vagant, and how much vagancy must one have to reach extravagancy?
It turns out that the extra- in extravagant doesn’t mean “beyond a usual size or amount,” like with the extra-large soda you might drink during extra innings at a baseball game. In this case, the extra- is a Latinate prefix that means “outside of,” as it does in extraterrestrial, extrasensory, and extraordinary.
So what vagancy is extravagancy outside of? This bit of the word traces back to the Latin verb vagari, meaning “to wander about.” (The wandering part is more evident in two other words from the same root: vagrant and vagabond.) The Latin word extravagari means “to wander outside or beyond,” and it’s from this source that extravagant wandered into the English language.
So something that is extravagant is wandering outside its normal place. Shakespeare used this word in the most literal sense in the first scene of Hamlet. Horatio, having seen the ghost of King Hamlet arrive and disappear, notes that, as the cock’s crow trumpets in the morning, “Th’extravagant and erring spirit hies / To his confine.” The spirit of King Hamlet wasn’t dressed in bright colors or gaudy jewels; he had been wandering outside his usual place in the afterlife, but hurried back at the first sign of morning.
Since before Shakespeare, though, extravagant has been used to describe various things that fall outside of normality, and the word has only grown in the language. Extravagances and extravagancy are both well-used, and extravaganza appeared in the mid-18th century. There’s even a mostly forgotten verb to extravagate, which means either “to wander off” or “to exceed the limits of need or propriety.”
From its start as a word to describe wandering about, extravagant has certainly grown beyond what one might have once expected. You might even call its etymological evolution … well, you get the picture.
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