Why do I so enjoy writing these word tastings? Partly it is because I enjoy writing and I enjoy an audience. But partly it is because I have a lexicographic wanderlust – and, for that matter, an encyclopedic wanderlust. When I was a child, I would often pull out a volume of our World Book Encyclopedia and look up something that had caught my fancy, and from there I would wander through other entries. (I operate on a need-to-know basis: I need to know everything.) This wanderlust – which I have by no means lost; indeed, the internet has greatly facilitated it – may seem a wanton acquisitiveness, a noetic cupidity, and I won’t say it’s not, but it’s another thing too: an excellent way of wasting time.
I am much better than I should be at wasting time. It’s not that I have more of it than anyone else (though I do use less of it for sleep than I should); it’s just that I have an aversion to using every last moment in some pointedly productive fashion. I must use some of it frivolously, distractedly; I must fritter it away pursuing my latest intellectual dipsomania. I must squander time, in fact. Not that time spent looking up facts is always wasted, but let me tell you, I do waste a lot of time I could be using to do important things.
It could be worse. It could be money. Imagine having a need to waste money. I know some people do. Indeed, many people who find themselves with quite a lot of it seem quite avid in seeking ways to dispose of it recklessly. It’s both a way of proving to oneself that one has it, and an attempt to rectify the unaccustomed situation by reducing the excess.
Some people also, finding themselves endowed with fame, respect, responsibility, reputation, what have you, react similarly: they do spectacularly ill-judged things. A person who has everything shoplifts an item of little consequence and is caught. A movie star or politician practically goes out of his way to arrange liaisons that will be looked on very dimly by much of the populace. A beloved singer develops an excessive liking for intoxicants and has a nasty mishap.
Squanderlust. They – and, in my temporal way, I too – have squanderlust.
I didn’t invent this word. I found it while not wasting my time: I was, in fact, doing actual linguistic research. But not on this word; I just happened to see it. And I knew I had to taste it.
The word is not new; it has been around at least since 1935. But it is not often used. The Oxford English Dictionary has three citations, and the first two are to do with politicians (in their official roles, going on sprees with tax dollars). The third, from Time magazine, July 18, 1977, is this: “No longer the ultimate expression of corporate and personal squanderlust, the private plane is now a ubiquitous … means of air travel to smaller cities.”
So squanderlust is, of course, money (or time, or reputation, or whatever) spent in large quantity on things not worth the expense. It is buying an item that is far surplus to any reasonable requirement (and perhaps even unsuited to it): a Lamborghini just for picking up the groceries; five hundred dollars on a pair of jeans; a beautiful piece of quality equipment one doesn’t even know how to use; four times as much food as is required for an event.
But then, considering our ways as a society – overloading ourselves with unnecessary luxuries that we really only think we need, acquiring many things entirely surplus to requirement just because they make us feel good, wasting untold amounts of food – do we not all have some measure of squanderlust? The waste that makes us comfortable in our bounty? Or are we simply so numb and heedless we don’t even enjoy our squandering?