Wednesday, December 31, 2014


To Loaf

Hal Borland (1900-1978), This Hill, This Valley (1957; rpt. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), pp. 281-282:
I hear that the social planners are after us leisure-wasters again. We seem to be a menace to society. And our reformation depends entirely on our adopting hobbies. It's a sin to loaf. Not a mortal sin, maybe, but a sin against society. Besides, the social planners need something to do or they will have leisure to waste.

I have tried to run down the etymology of the word loaf in the sense of taking it easy; but even the lexicographers seem unable to trace it. I have a hunch that it goes back to some language even earlier than Sanskrit, and I also have a hunch that the cryptographers who unravel the mysteries of ancient hieroglyphics will eventually find a clay tablet, perhaps from ancient Sumer, with a social planner's complaint about loafers. The planners and the loafers have been at it for a long, long time.

The heartening thing about it, to me, is that man continues to cherish his leisure and to insist on using it as he wishes. Also, I get great comfort from knowing that some of the best thoughts of all time have been generated by men who would be classified by the social planners as loafers and leisure-wasters. I'd as soon be a member of an ant colony as of a society in which a man didn't loaf now and then, just sit and think or, if he chose to, just sit.
James Russell Lowell (1819-1891), The Biglow Papers. Second Series (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1867), p. lvi:
To loaf: this, I think, is unquestionably German. Laufen is pronounced lofen in some parts of Germany, and I once heard one German student say to another, Ich lauf' (lofe) hier bis du wiederkehrest, and he began accordingly to saunter up and down, in short, to loaf.
Oxford English Dictionary s.v. loaf v.2:
Etymology: Of obscure origin.
Lowell's conjecture (adopted in recent Dicts.) that the verb is < German dialect lofen = laufen to run, is without foundation; the German verb has not the alleged sense 'to saunter up and down'. German landläufer (= land-loper n.) has a sense not very remote from that of loafer, but connection is not very probable.
Josef Bihl, "'Yokel' and 'Loaf'," Modern Language Review 23 (1928) 340:
N.E.D. is perhaps right in rejecting Lowell's conjecture that the word loaf is an adaptation of Ger. dial. lofen = laufen, but there can be little doubt that loaf, verb and noun, does go back to the German etymon lauf, the root being Teut. hlaup > Gothic hlaupan, A.S. hleapan, O.H.G. hlauffan. The German verb laufen not only means 'run,' but also 'saunter.' The nomen agentis, läufer, Suabian loafer, means 'a man who likes lounging about,' 'a vagrant.' N.E.D. quotes Leland to the effect that loaf, when it first began to be popular in 1834 or 1835, meant 'pilfer.' In this sense the word was already used by Luther. Mencken writes that an American authority said that loafer originated in a German mispronunciation of lover, i.e. as lofer. I should suggest an explanation just the other way round. There was a German dialect word lofer which became loafer in American. By the way, in the south of Germany, laufen sometimes means 'go to see one's sweetheart.' The only difficulty is whether American loaf, which, like yokel, was introduced into the United States by the German emigrants of the eighteenth century and afterwards migrated to England, is to be derived from the German verb or the nomen agentis. The sense of laufen (läufer) and loaf (loafer) is so much the same that connexion is not only probable but almost certain. The change of au, oa in Ger. dial. laufer, loafer into a long open English o is easy and natural: cp. Suabian loab (= standard German laib) and loaf.
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