A litter of words

Words have always fascinated me and the word “litter” is no exception. It is derived from the Latin word “lectus” meaning bed.

Tracing the word through history, we find, of course, that a litter was a contraption for carrying people around in – a litter looked like a small carriage but with two poles protruding at the back and the front to enable it to be carried by two men who must, at least in the case of some passengers, have been fairly strong. It doesn’t surprise me, therefore, that while we have seen the introduction of bicycle rickshaws in some of our cities, there has been no nostalgic hankering for the reintroduction of the litter, environmentally-friendly transport though it may be – the level of fitness and endurance required of a litterman would be beyond most of us.

Anyway, I digress. The word litter developed a separate branch of usage which found it describing the bed of straw or shavings spread about the floor that farm animals live and sleep on. In fact, when such animals gave birth, their collective offspring were referred to as a “litter”. It was in the 1600s that “litter” began to be used in a more disparaging sense. We hear (from J. Howell) of the Duke who “offered to make litter of his life for the service of his Catholic Majesty the King” and in the 1700s Fielding tells us of a lady that “she was ashamed to be seen in such a pickle…her house was in such a litter”

In a closely related sense, “litter” was taken in the 1800s to refer to the covering of fallen leaves, sticks and other vegetation that carpet the forest floor.

The “rubbish” meaning of litter seems to appear in the mid 1800s as exemplified by Ruskin’s comment about the painter JMW Turner : “he particularly enjoyed and looked for litter, like Covent Garden wrecked after the market. His pictures are often full of it from side to side.”

Thereafter, litter proceeded all too quickly into the meaning that we now use to denote discarded rubbish. There was a popular song published by Eleanor Farjeon in 1927 entitled “Gather Up Your Litter”, which applies just as well today as it did then. Here is a sample verse :

Bottles have attractions great
Before the corks are drawn
But in a cracked and empty state
They don’t improve the lawn.
And after you’ve got busy
With a drink of something fizzy
Don’t leave behind a lot of empty glass
It’s apt to prove a danger
To the unsuspecting stranger
So do gather up your litter from the grass

Not long after this in 1929, Harry Hardy Peach (who was a founding member of the Campaign to Protect Rural England – CPRE, or “Council for the Preservation of Rural England” as it was then known) published a fascinating collection of rhymes, notices, stories and suggestions entitled “Let Us Tidy Up”. He laments that “the problem of litter, like that of disfigurement by advertisement, which is the real litter, has grown out of our laissez faire of the nineteenth century”.

It’s strange, isn’t it, that the term we use to describe the unsightly rubbish that we drop all over the place actually means “bed”, a place where most of us like to be and which evokes thoughts of rest, love and comfort ?

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