The word saunter, like many others, can’t be traced back very far (AHD: Probably from Middle English santren, to muse), but of course that doesn’t stop people from trying, and this word has a particularly enjoyable pseudo-etymology, discussed in the following typically piquant passage from one of the stories in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Martians (a book I recommend to anyone who likes thoughtful, human-oriented science fiction):

Long walks around Odessa at the end of the day. Aimless, without destination, except perhaps for an evening rendezvous with Maya, down on the corniche. Sauntering through the streets and alleyways. Sax liked Thoreau’s explanation for the word saunter: from à la Saint[e] Terre, describing pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. There goes a Saint[e] Terrer, a saunterer, a Holy Lander. But it was a false etymology, apparently spread from a book called Country Words, by S. and E. Ray, 1691. Although since the origins of the word were obscure, it might in fact be the true story.

Sax would have liked to be sure about that, one way or the other. It made the word itself a problem to mull over. But as he sauntered Odessa thinking about it, he did not see how the matter could be investigated any further, the etymologists having been thorough. The past was resistant to research.

The second paragraph expresses quite well one of the reasons I got out of historical linguistics. The past is, indeed, resistant to research. After a century or two of philological hypotheses, there’s not much further you can go into the history of most words, and picking over the remaining obscurities is not as rewarding as it might be.

I have a couple of questions related to this passage. I find the use of saunter with a direct object (“But as he sauntered Odessa thinking about it…”) odd but not unacceptable; does anybody else have a reaction to it? And does anyone know if there is actually a “Country Words, by S. and E. Ray, 1691″? I turn up only this suspiciously similar title (from this bookseller’s catalog; I’ve bolded the similar bits):

Ray, John. (1627-1705) A Collection of English Words Not Generally used, with their Significations and Original, in two Alphabetical Catalogues, The One Of such as are proper to the Northern, the other to the Southern Counties. With An Account of the preparing and refining such Metals and minerals as are gotten in England. The Second Edition, augmented with many hundreds of Words, Observations, Letters &c. By John Ray; Fellow of the Royal Society.
London: Printed for Christopher Wilkinson, at the Black Boy [sic] over against S. Dunstan’s Church in Fleetstreet, 1691.

…Ray was a remarkable man whose additions to natural history are immense and in this particular book, the subjects that he treats are equally remarkable. In the preface, Ray reports that after the first edition of his work was published, he received several catalogues of obscure northern and southern words from several learned friends, and notes that he has greatly augmented these sections with the help of these new catalogues. The preface is followed by a list of “North Country Words,” each with its meaning and etymology. This section is followed by “South and East Country Words,” similarly defined, and “A Catalogue of Local Words parallel’d with British or Welsh,” arranged in parallel columns, “A Catalogue of North Country Words,” the “Glossarium Northanhymbricum,” the next section, most intriguing, is “An Account of some Errors and Defects in our English Alphabet, Orthography, and Manner of Spelling,” in which Ray complains about the use of the final “e” used at the end of English words to indicate a hard vowel sound in the preceding vowel when the two are separated by a consonant. He suggests that this practice leads foreigners and children to expect to pronounce an “eee” sound at the end of such words. [Words like smoke, as opposed to smock.] Ray also complains about problems with spelling, shedding light on a problem that seems so apparent to modern readers in all English works of this period, the spelling is highly erratic. He also makes numerous specific descriptions of the pronunciations of many words. Many modern scholars often wonder about the way that seventeenth century people pronounced words. Much can be deduced on that subject by reading this section. In the post-script section we find “Some Observations made and communicated by Mr. Francis Brokesby, concerning the Dialect, and various Pronunciation of Words in the East Riding of Yorkshire.”

I’m assuming this was distorted either by Robinson or his source to “Country Words, by S. and E. Ray,” but it would be nice to know for sure.


  1. Kim Stanley Robinson must have misunderstood the OED citation, which reads “Ray, S. & E. Country Words, 1691″.

  2. That’s it! Well done, sir.

  3. The word is used (and explained as indeed referring to the Crusaders going to the Holy Land) in A Political History of the Devil by Daniel Defoe (pub 1726).

  4. Very interesting because I love to wander or saunter.I would say,”saunter around Odessa” but I am English,I must have made a mistake with my blog url….it’s on WP called How my heart speaks

  5. The OED sniffily shoots down my favorite etymology:

    The current [1910] suggestion that the word is < Anglo-Norman sauntrer (= s’auntrer), to venture oneself, is unlikely (apart from difficulties of meaning) on the ground that the Anglo-Norman word, of which only one instance has been found (1338 in Yearbks. Trinity 12 Edw. III, p. 619) is apparently an adoption of Middle English auntre to adventure v., and possibly a mere nonce-word; the conjecture that it represents a medieval Latin type *exadventūrāre is phonologically inadmissible.

    Well, life is full of T.H. Huxley’s “traged[ies] of science — the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact”. But might not the s be a reduced form of se, making it ‘to adventure oneself’?

  6. Andy Gilliland says

    The etymology of the word saunter features in an essay by Henry Thoreau (‘Walking’ published 1862) where the same reference to the Holy Land is made.

  7. Teresa Wyman says

    The book is John Ray’s Collection of South and East-Country Words (1691)

  8. Thanks!

  9. The misreading of the book title reminds me of the curious and very brief existence of a collaborator of Albert Einstein by the name of S.B. Preuss.

  10. That’s hilarious!

  11. David Marjanović says

    Had to happen sooner or later. Preuß/ss is even a known surname.

  12. Stu Clayton says

    It’s nice to be a Preiß
    But higher to be a Bayer.
    Yet the most important rank
    Is to be a Middle-Frank.

  13. David Marjanović says

    Man muss Gott für alles danken.
    Auch für die Ober-, Mittel- und Unterfranken.

    Bavarian proverb: “one has to thank God for everything, even for the Upper, Middle & Lower Franks” – expressing the fact that neither the (Lutheran) Franks nor the (Catholic) ethnic Bavarians are happy with the fact that Franconia belongs to Bavaria.

  14. Long ago I had a catalogue of books from the USSR in which one entry was listed with a coauthor named M. A. Cantab.

  15. J. W. Brewer says

    Just saw the “Holy Land” version online this morning, attributed to John Muir. Can’t keep a good bogus folk etymology down!

  16. marie-lucie says

    JC: But might not the s be a reduced form of se, making it ‘to adventure oneself’?

    I agree with you, and I agree with the Anglo-Norman hypothesis. The fact that there is only one attested instance of AN is irrelevant for a rather rare word. As for Middle English auntre ‘to adventure’ (meaning ‘to risk’), it shows the AN loss of v between vowels, already present in Old English but extended to Old or Middle French borrowings, as in laundry from Fr or AN lavanderie (a word which must have existed, see Fr lavandière ‘washerwoman’). The v-less forms show that ME borrowed from AN, not the opposite.

  17. marie-lucie says

    The TLFI shows an old transitive verb “aventurer” ‘to risk’ which has not survived the medieval period, but also the pronominal “s’aventurer” which is stiIll quite alive and well, attested since the 1300s. If the pronominal form was already the most common one at that time, no wonder that the initial s should have been interpreted as part of the borrowed verb.

  18. Ian in France says

    A saunter is the French word for a small path or track, often created by an animal. The type of path that you would saunter along!
    Given the amount of French origin words in English, often with a slightly different but related meaning I would suggest that this is the origin of the word in English.

  19. David Marjanović says

    But the French word is sentier. Is that close enough, and was it close enough 600 years ago?

  20. So in fact it’s a noun that’s been verbed.

    And thanks for the short life of S.B. Preuss. (Pratchett has a collection of Greek-ish philosophers called things like Isocrates, Didactylos and so on, one of whom loses his temper with a colleague: “The trouble with you, Ibid, is that you think you’re the biggest bloody authority on everything.”)

  21. For “in fact” read “according to Ian.” I myself prefer the “s’aventurer” hypothesis.

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