Eyehawk at posted:

I was curious how “litter” evolved from a term used for strewn trash into a group of babies produced by one cat or dog.

Dave Wilton responded:

Litter comes to English from the Anglo-Normans lit(t)ere in the early 14th century. The original sense was a bed or a bed-like carriage hauled by humans. Think of nobles in medieval or classical times being taken around the city in litters.

In French, it could also have the sense of straw or other material that made up a bed, and this sense was also used for straw used as bedding material for animals in stables and barns. This sense appears in English in the early 15th century.

By the mid 15th century, the word was being used to refer to animals born among such straw or material.

Then in the 18th century, litter came to mean odds and ends strewn across the floor, like straw. This is where the trash and rubbish sense comes from.

The stretcher sense goes back to the original sense of a bed-like carriage.

I’ll add that the Anglo-Norman word is from medieval Latin lectāria, derived from Latin lectus ‘bed’ (which of course gives French lit). An interesting semantic range, though Eyehawk’s original question of how it got to mean, in the OED’s words, “The whole number of young brought forth at a birth” (first citation 1486 Bk. St. Albans F vj A Litter of welpis) is not really answered — Dave’s “animals born among such straw or material” is a plausible guess but not immediately convincing.


  1. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Litter v. ‘to bring forth young’ is possibly slightly older – first quotation 1484.

    Older quotations for the noun are all about beds, stretchers and bedding – could it be the same kind of idea as being ‘brought to bed’?

  2. Just like “plate” has come to mean “a plate’s worth of food”.

  3. In Britain and Ireland, a rubbish bin/trash can provided in a public place for the use of the general public is often called a “litter bin”, whereas it should really be a “litter prevention bin”. This in turn has caused “litter” to be reinterpreted as meaning “rubbish” whether strewn or unstrewn; at places without “litter bins” one sees signs like “please take your litter away with you”.

  4. It’s a good point. It cannot be a litter bin because anything placed in it ceases immediately to be litter. Similarly, “don’t drop litter” – if I don’t drop it, it isn’t litter. It only becomes litter once it has been dropped.

    I think litter meaning bedding is a fairly convincing origin for litter meaning a batch of young; it’s that favourite of Thurber’s, a Container For The Thing Contained. Note that you only talk about litters for animals that might actually give birth in litter – a litter of puppies or piglets, but not of birds or fish.

  5. the Anglo-Norman word is from medieval Latin lectāria, derived from Latin lectus ‘bed’

    Clearly the Romans, an indolent nation, spent a lot of time lying around reading rather than getting up and doing stuff, hence “lectus” a bed from the past participle of “lego”, to read.

  6. PlasticPaddy says
    To me etymology 2 (from an indo-european root for “to lie”) seems more logical but maybe PIE experts have other grounds for preferring etymology 1.

  7. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I’m still interested in the verb, which at that time would have meant not scattering things about, but ‘To furnish (a horse, etc.) with litter or straw for his bed’

    A couple of early OED quotes:
    – The colte is not lyttrid wyth strawe nother coryed wyth an horse combe.
    – It shal be necessary to keepe him littering him vp to the belly with fresh straw

    It’s not a long way from there to the idea of providing a bed for new young, especially if barn dogs are like barn cats, and the first you know of it is a nest of puppies somewhere in the straw…

  8. Good point!

  9. Still Waters says

    In its modern usage, French *litière* is mostly used to refer to a cat’s litter box as well as (in a more specialised use) the substrate of decomposing vegetal matter on the soil that hasn’t become humus yet.

  10. Owlmirror says

    the substrate of decomposing vegetal matter on the soil that hasn’t become humus yet.

    That’s “leaf litter” in English as well.

  11. “…could it be the same kind of idea as being ‘brought to bed’?”

    See also “accouchement” and “lying-in”.

  12. David Marjanović says

    As I suspected, but didn’t have time to look up: the bed is lectus, but the PPP of “read” is lēctus because of Lachmann’s law.

    (Lachmann himself is no doubt named after the mad cackling contemplation of his law induces as people go mad from the ensuing revelation.)

  13. David Marjanović says

    “The landscape is littered with dead archbishops of Canterbury.”
    – from the official blurb of a Blackadder episode

  14. The best episodes if Blackadder often have the protagonist* taking over an important job with a very short life expectancy: archbishop, lord high executioner, etc.

    * I first wrote “him” instead of “the protagonist,” the referent of the pronoun being “Blackadder.” However, I realized that did not work, because Blackadder is not the same person across the multiple examples. (It has often been cited as one of the strengths of the series that, while the successive members of the Blackadder family have many similarities, they are all distinct characters.)

  15. David Marjanović says

    It did remind me of those Disney-franchise stories where Donald, Scrooge and the kids all have their own ancestors, which are each other’s uncles and nephews just like their descendants.

  16. “Cat litter” with the answer KITTENS would make a good crossword clue.

  17. @David Marjanović: TV Tropes calls that “Generation Xerox.”

  18. David Marjanović says

    No, it’s more extreme than that. Sexual reproduction goes out the window.

  19. Owlmirror says

    No, it’s more extreme than that. Sexual reproduction goes out the window.

    Sort of, in every era, a set of Ducks with those relationships spontaneously (spontooneously?) generates?

    Or is it more like each Duck is like a Phoenix; on death, their remains become the egg of the next generation?

    I suspect that the writers haven’t thought about it that deeply . . .

  20. @Owlmirror: The authors have definitely thought about it to the extent that, whenever versions of Huey, Dewey, and Louie appear, their father’s identity is never going to be revealed. This is part of a very long-running gag. Have a look, for instance, at this family tree, where the trio’s father is obscured by leaves and a bird. (The tree also makes no effort to trace the details of how Donald is descended from Bo’sun Pintail, who lived in Elizabethan times. Donald was hypnotically regressed into Pintail’s body in “Back to Long Ago.”)

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