Litter

Oh look.  It clumps.  We’ll change our name to Arm & Leg.

Dear Word Detective:  I’m wondering how the word “litter” came to mean two things that are pretty much opposites: something tossed away (such as litter on the highway), and something you pick up and carry with you (as paramedics do for patients; as slaves do for kings).  My husband added a third meaning, lest we forget: “litter” can mean a whole bunch of baby animals born from the same pregnancy.  Any clue as to how one word came to mean so much, including its own opposite? — Rosemarie Eskes, Rochester, NY.

Speaking of “litter,” you folks forgot “kitty litter.”  Incidentally, people complain about how much money investment bankers, corporate CEOs, et al., make, and rightly so.  But for sheer brazen banditry, those muggs can’t hold a candle to the cat litter cartel. They take a truckload of clay, douse it in perfume, stick it in boxes sporting a picture of a cute (and apparently ecstatically continent) cat, and sell each box for what dinner in a decent restaurant used to cost you before you spent all your money on cat litter.

Onward.  Whenever you run across a word with as many different meanings as “litter” seems to have, there are two possibilities.  The first is that it’s actually all the same word, with one (usually very long) history, and that over the years it has sprouted all sorts of disparate (and even contradictory) meanings.  The other possibility is that all (or at least some) of those meanings of “litter” actually belong to separate words, with separate histories, that just all happen to be spelled “litter.”  That may sound unlikely, but it’s not uncommon.  There are, for instance, five entirely unrelated “docks” in the English language.

If “litter” were, in fact, five different words, all those meanings would be a bit simpler to explain.  But all those kinds of “litter” are actually one very versatile little word.

In the beginning was the Latin noun “lectus,” which meant “bed.”  Filtered through the Old French “litiere,” it arrived in English as “litter” around 1300, still with the basic meaning of “bed.”  One of its earliest derivative meanings was “litter” in the sense of “a couch for the transport of the nobility carried by servants” as well as a similar, but more humble, version for the transport of the sick or wounded.

In the 15th century, “litter” came to mean “straw or similar material gathered for bedding” for humans or scattered on the floor as bedding for animals. This sense of “stuff thrown on the floor” eventually, in the 18th century, gave us “litter” meaning “rubbish or odds and ends scattered or strewn about,” but didn’t produce the noun “littering” until 1960.  “Litterbug,” meaning a chronic litterer, first appeared in 1947 and was enormously popular when I was young, but now seems to have almost completely faded away.

The “bedding for animals” sense of “litter” also gave us “litter” meaning “number of animals born together,” the original sense being that they were born “in one litter,” i.e., in the same bed at the same time.  “Cat litter,” a term which appeared in the 1950s, is an extension of “litter” meaning “a jumble of odds and ends used as accommodation for animals.”  Of course, in recent years it has also come to mean “gold mine.”

1 comment on this post.
  1. George:

    Thanks for the clarification, this was puzzling me. My native language is portuguese and this “litter” different meaning seemed totally ackward, but now it makes sense, although still fuzzy, in itself, not you explanation, which is perfect.

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