A few weeks back, my friend Stephanie sent me this message:

“Why are there so many words with multiple, seemingly unrelated meanings? For example, a litter can mean newborn animals, trash or to leave trash lying about, AND a basket used in rescues. None of those seem related at all.”

Steph is a teacher, so she probably already knows that the word “litter” is a homonym.  You probably learned about it in English class, but your brain has since flushed that fact to make room for other more pertinent things.  Homonyms are words that sound the same, but have different meanings.  Litter is also a homograph. Homographs are words that are spelled the same but have multiple meanings. There are also heteronyms, which are words that are spelled the same, but are pronounced differently and have different meanings.  And finally, there are homophones, which sound alike but have different meanings and spellings.   I know, it’s hard to keep those ‘nyms  and homos straight.

Ok, back to Stephanie’s original query.  The English language and the development thereof is a very tangled web, but usually if you go way back, you can find a common thread.  I looked through the originations of the word litter, and found this article that said that there was an Indo-European word, legh, that meant to lie down.  From there came the Latin word lectus, which meant bed.  The French turned lectus into litere and then lit.  Around 1300, the English word for bed, litter, was born.  So, the connection to litter as a rescue basket is pretty straight-forward.  Animals that are all born at the same time (in one bed together) are called a litter.  Before people had mattresses, their bed was straw.   This is where the trash type of the word litter comes from – referring to a collection of small items on the ground.

So, there is some reason behind our crazy, ever-evolving language.  Thanks, Steph, for this little exercise.

Anyone else have any ideas for a “There’s a Word for That” post?

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