Alternative words for laziness, compiled by Dr Oliver Tearle
The English language possesses more than a few good words that mean ‘lazy’ or ‘a lazy person’. Below, as well as some of the more common synonyms for ‘lazy’ or ‘laziness’, we’ve trawled the old dictionaries and thesauri to find some of the best little-known synonyms for the word ‘lazy’ and its variations.
INDOLENT. This word has been used to mean ‘slothful’, ‘lazy’, or ‘idle’ since at least the early eighteenth century. Interestingly, it originally meant ‘causing no pain’, as its etymology (literally, ‘not grieving’) testifies.
SLUGGISH. What has sluggish, a fine synonym meaning ‘lazy’, to do with slugs? It’s pretty self-explanatory, given slugs’ slow-moving habits. Curiously, though, the gastropod was named after the term ‘sluggish’ had entered the English language as another word for ‘slow moving’ or ‘lazy’ (in the fifteenth century). The slimy creatures didn’t get their sluggish name until the eighteenth century.
SLOTHFUL. Sticking with animals, what is the relationship between ‘slothful’, meaning lazy or slow, and the sloth? Again, the term ‘sloth’ to denote laziness or sluggishness was there first (from the twelfth century); the animal characterised by its sluggish behaviour was so named in the seventeenth century.
LOAFING. What about ‘loafing’ – a word meaning ‘passing time idly’ – and its relationship to ‘loaf’ (of bread)? There probably isn’t a link, but the origins of the term ‘loafing’ to mean ‘idling’ are shrouded in mystery.
IDLE. Coming from a Germanic root meaning ‘empty’ or ‘worthless’, the word ‘idle’ came to mean ‘lazy’ by around the year 1300, when it appears in the long poem Cursor Mundi (a medieval poem that provides the OED with many early instances of useful words).
TARDY. More specifically meaning ‘slow’ – or, indeed, ‘sluggish’ – the word ‘tardy’ (from the Latin tardus, ‘slow’, whence we also get words like retardation to describe something slowing down) has been in use since the fifteenth century.
LAGGARD. This word can be used as both an adjective and a noun, and describes someone who is lagging, hanging back, or loitering.
LETHARGIC. This near-synonym for ‘lazy’, meaning ‘affected with inertness or inactivity; dull, sleepy, sluggish, apathetic’, came into being in the seventeenth century: the OED’s first citation is from John Donne’s ‘Second Anniversary’ from 1612: ‘To be thus stupid is Alacrity; / Men thus lethargique haue best Memory.’ ‘Lethargy’ was originally a medical term denoting ‘a disorder characterized by morbid drowsiness or prolonged and unnatural sleep’ (OED). It was also used as another term for what we’d now call a stroke; Daniel Defoe’s cause of death in 1731 was listed as ‘a lethargy’.
IGNAVY. This is a rare and obsolete term, a noun meaning ‘sluggishness’ or ‘sloth’. Etymologically, it literally means ‘not busy’ (from the Latin). Perhaps it’s due a revival?
BEDPRESSER. Appearing in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1, where Prince Hal uses it to describe – surprise, surprise – Falstaff (‘This sanguine coward, this bed-presser’), this handy noun for a lazy person was defined by Samuel Johnson in his 1755 Dictionary as ‘a heavy lazy fellow’.
JOTTLE. This is an old Scots word – a verb. It is defined by one nineteenth-century dictionary thus: ‘To be apparently diligent and yet doing nothing, to be so about trifles.’
QUISBY. The word ‘quisby’ means ‘an idle fellow’, and so is a glorious synonym for a lazy person, for someone who idles. However, the word – rare though it is – is slightly more common in the phrase ‘doing quisby’, which was old slang for idling or not working. Of uncertain etymology.
EYE-SERVANT. Although now rare, this word, referring to a servant or employee who is hard-working or obedient only when observed by their employer, dates from the sixteenth century, and was used in one of the Protestant martyr Hugh Latimer’s sermons.
CLINOMANIA. A more recent coinage, this twentieth-century word denotes the overwhelming desire to stay in bed.
LAZY-BONES. Of surprisingly ancient vintage: the OED records this word in colloquial use from 1593.
LACKADAISICAL. This word first appears in Laurence Sterne’s 1768 novel Tristram Shandy, although whether Sterne coined this handy synonym for ‘weak-willed and indolent’, it’s difficult to know for sure. Defined as ‘resembling one who is given to crying “Lackaday!”; full of vapid feeling or sentiment; affectedly languishing’ (OED).
WORKSHY. Dating from 1883, this is one of the best synonyms for ‘lazy’ that denotes someone who knows they should be at work, but …
LAYABOUT. Used to denote an idle loafer, this word is first recorded in 1932 (according to the OED). It’s something of a solecism – technically, one lies about rather than lays about – but it’s become one of the most popular nouns for a lazy person, and seems like a good word to conclude our list of the best synonyms for laziness and a lazy person.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.