Friday, September 6, 2019

Word of the day: loiter

Elaine and I ran into a friend in the library. What brought us there? I kept a straight face and said that we were loitering. Meaning what, exactly?

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that loiter first meant “to idle, waste one's time in idleness.” The word later came to have a more specific meaning: “to linger indolently on the way when sent on an errand or when making a journey; to linger idly about a place; to waste time when engaged in some particular task, to dawdle.” The dictionary notes that the word frequently appears in the legal phrase to loiter with intent, the intent, that is, to commit a felony.

Our only intent was to browse for books and movies. And there was no dawdling or indolent lingering involved. Okay, we weren’t really loitering.

But whence the verb loiter? The OED traces the word to the Middle Dutch loteren, “to wag about (like a loose tooth)” or “to shiver” (like a sail) or “to dawdle, loiter over one’s work.”

And now I wondered: could loiter be related to litter? Those who loiter may be likely to litter, tossing about candy wrappers and cigarette butts, but there’s no connection between the words. The verb litter derives from the noun litter, which the OED traces from the Anglo-Norman litere all the way back to the Latin lectus, meaning “bed.” And the noun’s meanings go from “bed” (the earliest) to the stuff of bedding (“straw, rushes, or the like”) to bedding for animals (with “the straw and dung together”) to straw and other materials used in plaster or thatch to “odds and ends, fragments and leavings lying about, rubbish; a state of confusion or untidiness; a disorderly accumulation of things lying about.” The verb’s earliest meaning: “To furnish (a horse, etc.) with litter or straw for his bed.” The definition of the verb that comes closest to our usual use: “to cover as with litter, to strew with objects scattered in disorder.”

The OED lacks a definition for what we usually talk about when we talk about the verb litter: the discarding of small scraps of packaging or other matter in public places. I thought that might be because the dictionary’s entries for the noun and verb (“first published 1903”) have not been fully updated. (The most recent citation for the verb: 1896.) But Merriam-Webster, too, has no definition for litter that speaks of small scraps discarded in public places. The OED does have a relevant definition for littering: “the action of throwing or dropping litter,” with the earliest citation from 1960.

What are the limits of litter? To leave, say, a television or a piece of furniture on the sidewalk is not to litter. To flick ashes on the sidewalk is not to litter. But to drop something that belongs in a wastebasket — say, a losing lottery ticket — is.

I will now disappear before someone suspects me of loitering.

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