Time for another round of “which use came first?”! My husband and I were talking about this one a little while ago. Sloth. So which came first, the deadly sin or the slow-moving animal?
My theory was that the attribute came first and the animal was named after it, and that was right…to an extent.
The interesting thing about the word sloth is that it DOESN’T have its roots in French or Latin or Greek. It’s unique to English, tracing directly from Middle English slou or slowe (look familiar?), which in turn came from Old English sleuthe.
Once you take off that -th ending that the speakers of earlier English were so fond of, you see how close sloth and slow are, so it’s no surprise that they in fact share a meaning. Sloth was used as the attribute of slow applied to people or animals, but it carried with it an idea not just of slowness, but of sluggishness, indolence, and neglecting responsibilities. Those negative connotations never totally disappeared, but by the mid-1300s, it began to be used to indicate slowness or tardiness without necessarily including the neglect.
So how about the animal? The South American Sloth was discovered in the early 1600s by the Portugese, and they applied the word preguiça to it. Preguiça means “slow, lazy,” from Latin pigrita, which means “laziness.” The English speakers chose sloth as the closest equivalent.
Have you ever seen a sloth in person? We saw one at a zoo…but it was curled up in a box, sleeping. Go figure, right? 😉