Printable Version
Pronunciation: loy-dêr Hear it!

Part of Speech: Verb, intransitive

Meaning: 1. To hang around with nothing to do, to twiddle your thumbs, to goof off, which is to say, to stand around wasting time. 2. To dawdle, to move slowly and lazily, stopping along the way, as to loiter through the mall without looking for anything in particular.

Notes: English-speakers have always been suspicious of loitering; it reminds us of someone waiting for a chance to commit a crime. For this reason, loitering in public places is a misdemeanor crime in many jurisdictions, especially if the loiterer is a suspiciously dressed woman. Thus, unlike dawdle, piddle, and similar words, loiter has a negative connotation. Those who loiter are loiterers, of course, because they engage in loitering.

In Play: It would seem that in countries like the US, where stress is a leading health problem, loitering would be encouraged. However, the negative tinge haunting the first meaning of this word limits its use to accusatory utterances: "Stop loitering around the house and help your dad clean out the garage!" The second meaning is less pejorative: "Malcolm loitered through the first day of the new job, ignoring and ignored by most of his co-workers." However, even this sense is ever so slightly haunted by a pall of suspicion.

Word History: Today's word came into Middle English from Middle Dutch loteren "be loose, to shake or totter", as a loose tooth might totter. In Modern Dutch it is leuteren "to delay, linger over one's work". It is probably a cognate with Old English loddere "beggar", Middle English lodder "good-for-nothing", and archaic Modern German Lotterbube "vagabond, rascal". The root seems to be limited to Germanic languages and isn't found in other Indo-European language families. (We apologize to Gail Rallen for loitering about so long before running today's Good Word, which she suggested months ago.)

Dr. Goodword,

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