Printable Version
Pronunciation: im-pê-kyu-ni-ês Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adjective

Meaning: Extremely poor, penniless.

Notes: Impecunious has not been used as the negative of pecunious "extremely wealthy" for such a long time that the latter word has become something of a joke, now meaning "money-grubbing, miserly" outside the US. More remarkable, however, is that in the US the meaning of pecunious has taken an entirely different turn; it now means "thrifty, frugal". Even the New York Times referred to the state of New York's "pecunious attitude toward the homeless" in a 1991 article. The adverb is formed by adding the usual -ly and the noun, by the usual -ness on the end. Impecuniosity is also acceptable, though it sounds a bit peculiar to us.

In Play: Since we have plenty of words meaning "poor" (indigent, needy, penniless, impoverished, poverty-stricken, destitute), we should save this one for reference to extreme poverty: "Morris Bedda remembers with little fondness his impecunious days in college, when he spent more time working than studying." Many of us suffer from impecuniousness in and around our college years: "Lance Boyles was too impecunious to continue on to medical school after working his way through college."

Word History: Today's word is made up of the Latin negative prefix in "not" + pecunious "rich", the adjective for pecunia "money, wealth". This word is an extension of pecus "cattle, farm animals", which explains why Italian pecorino sheep cheese goes back to the same root. English peculiar comes from Latin peculium "riches in cattle, property", the same root, pec-, with a different suffix. We would expect the [p] to become [f] and the [k] to become [h] in Germanic languages, so the Old English word for "cattle" was feoh. In Old Norse, this word became simply fe which, combined with lag "to lay, place in order" became felag "partnership, fellowship". A member of a partnership was a felagi, borrowed by Old English and polished over time into fellow. (Today we are grateful for the richness of Susan Lister's vocabulary and our long-time e-mail fellowship which brought us today's suggestion.)

Dr. Goodword,

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