SAUNTER: “(verb) walk in a slow, relaxed manner; (noun) a leisurely stroll. Origin: Late Middle English (in the sense ‘to muse, wonder’): of unknown origin. The current sense dates from the mid 17th century.” – Oxford English Dictionary

Recently a friend posted a meme with a supposed quote from John Muir:

I don’t like the word hike. I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not hike! Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.

Now, I immediately suspected: 1) John Muir never said such a thing; 2) the whole etymology was codswallop. Why? Because these clever word origins never pan out. Never.

Crapper was not named for Thomas Crapper. Posh is not an acronym for Port Out Starboard Home; neither does one tip To Insure Promptness. (We covered these and other too-clever-to-be-true etymologies in another article.)

This presumed genesis of saunter takes the cake, though. It’s not only clever and makes too fine a story, it also ratifies and bolsters the sharer’s inner desires, as does the attribution to John Muir.  

As it turns out, the originator (possibly) of this faux-meaning is the equally venerable Henry David Thoreau. In his essay “Walking,” Thoreau elevates the saunterers not because nature is a holy place, but because they are purposefully aimless and without a home. In fact, he adds:

Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering.

Again, this is a bit too precious, and one author posits Thoreau was hitting back at Adam Smith’s objection to sauntering, which to the economist signified aimlessness and a lack of industry.

As OED mentions, the actual origin of the word is more prosaic, possibly derived from santren, a Middle English word meaning “to daydream.” No one knows where that word came from, but the Online Etymology Dictionary cites one “absurd speculation”: the French word s’aventurer, meaning “to take risks.” Again, this sounds way too cute, and the site archly adds the OED finds this “unlikely.”

Now this is in no way a true lexicide. No one we’ve encountered uses saunter to mean anything but “walking leisurely.” Whether that’s good or bad depends on whether you hew closer to Smith or Thoreau’s attitude on life. If you think of yourself simpatico with John Muir, then saunter away. But don’t try to convince us the word has religious meaning.

 – Otto E. Mezzo