Mind your language

The changing meaning of 'prolific', from Orwell to the Premier League

The original sense – 'producing many offspring' – seems pretty much dead

17 January 2015

9:00 AM

17 January 2015

9:00 AM

I read somewhere recently of a Soho artist who was a ‘prolific drinker’. The meaning is clear, but hasn’t the word been taken for a walk too far from the neatly hedged semantic field where it was bred?

Prolific is hardly ever used in the literal sense of ‘producing many offspring’. I had thought it was most often employed metaphorically of authors, but then my husband surprised me by saying something both true and relevant: that prolific is most often paired with goalscorer. He’s right. It is used dozens of times a week in the sports pages. ‘Adam Rooney,’ the Times notes, ‘is undoubtedly the most prolific of Aberdeen’s strikers.’

When the same paper begins a report, ‘A male nurse has been identified as the most prolific serial killer in modern German history’ by killing 30 patients, is it straining the metaphor? Far from begetting life, the man snuffed it out. I suppose he produced murders as fruitfully as Barbara Cartland did novels.

The next step is to transfer prolific from the producer to produce: prolific novels. And then why not have prolific sneezing (as the OED records from the year 2000), and after that, prolific drinking and the rest?

In any case, the metaphorical fertility of prolific was dead centuries ago. Few readers of Nineteen Eighty-Four immediately think of the Proles as fertile, and Orwell was only following the Romans for whom a proletarius ‘served the state not with his property but only with his offspring’. The word proles (two syllables) itself meant ‘offspring’, but proletarius was used to signify ‘belonging to the lowest class of citizen’ as described by Servius Tullus, king of Rome in the 6th century BC. Two centuries before Marx, English had developed the adjectives proletary and proletarian. Although proletariat was borrowed from French and German in the mid-19th century, not till 1924 did the English adopt Marx’s Lumpenproletariat (where lumpen properly means ‘ragged’).

New English words have proliferated from the proliferous Latin originals, but what noun corresponds to the adjective prolific? Prolificacy? Prolificness? Robert Burchfield in his edition of Fowler suggests instead a synonym such as productiveness.

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