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You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

In a word: loaf

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a moderately obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar — another brick to add to the wall of your working vocabulary. This week's word:


When I posted earlier today that I was born to loaf but compelled to work, one reader, Albert Wu, inquired about the origins of loaf as a verb.

A quick visit to disclosed that the verb meaning “to spend time in idleness” is a back-formation from the noun loafer. Perhaps this will help put to rest the anxieties of all those people who are troubled when they see an English noun verbed or an English verb noun’d.  We do it all the damn time, and always have.

Loafer, it turns out, we may have acquired from German: Merriam-Webster conjectures that it is “perhaps short for landloafer, modification of German landläufer vagabond, tramp, from land + läufer runner, walker.” It came into English around 1830.

The noun loaf, for a shaped mass of bread, sugar, or other substance, also has German origins: “Middle English lof, laf, from Old English hlāf bread, loaf; akin to Old High German hleib, leib bread, loaf, Old Norse hleifr, Gothic hlaifs.” That sense has been in English since the twelfth century.

And loaf as a noun can also mean a period of time spent in idleness, from which I conclude that half a loaf is better than none.

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