Merriam-Webster online dictionary says one of the meanings of "waste" is: a broad and empty expanse(as of water) http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/waste

I'm interested in the origin of this meaning. Let me explain why.

Here's from Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 2.

In the dead wast and middle of the night

This is from Second Quarto and First Folio. In the modern spelling, "wast" is "waste".

However, in First Quarto, "wast" is replaced by "vast". My wild guess is that the pronunciation of "vast" and "wast" were the same in the Elizabethan English. Hence the printers of Hamlet at that time mistook "vast" as "wast". They say First Quarto is unreliable, but it's the oldest text of Hamlet.

In any case, my question is: What is the origin of the meaning of "waste" as a broad expanse?

  • 1
    Consulting a dictionary will give the etymology. Oct 23, 2014 at 4:55
  • @RoaringFish Which dictionary? Could you please name one? Oct 23, 2014 at 20:44
  • 1
    Just look for the word 'etymological' on the dictionary - they are not rare! Online... I use OED, or if I can't be bothered going through the log in process I use Collins online. Oct 24, 2014 at 8:02

1 Answer 1


According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the etymology of this sense of waste is:

waste: c.1300, of land, "desolate, uncultivated," from Anglo-French and Old North French waste (Old French gaste), from Latin vastus (see waste (v.)). From c.1400 as "superfluous, excess;" 1670s as "unfit for use." Waste-paper attested from 1580s.

In other words, all that space is wasted. Because, conceptually, one or more of the following applies:

  • No one is using it, i.e. it's more than is needed
  • No one can use it, e.g. for farming, because it's unfit
  • It's been used up, i.e., it is dried out, arid.
  • It's covered in rubble (garbage).

Re: your speculation about vast, yes, they share a common origin in the Latin word:

vastus: a lot of empty (wasted) space.

But note the senses and etymologies of the two derived words -- vast and waste -- diverged about three centuries before Hamlet was written.

Aside: one of the most moving statements in the English language occurred when a reporter asked Buzz Aldrin (the second man on the Moon) what the Moon was like, and he replied:

Beautiful. Beautiful. Magnificent desolation.

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    The Latin word "vastus" has two different meanings "immense" and "devastated", though they are not entirely unrelated. It is clear that the main meaning of "vast" was originated from the former, while the main meaning of "waste" was originated from the latter. As you pointed out, the online etymology dictionary says about the meaning of "waste" that c.1200, "desolate regions" from Latin vastum, neuter of vastus "waste". It is not clear to me when "waste" had the meaning "immense". Oct 23, 2014 at 2:28
  • @ivanhoescott, I think you're restating what I said in my answer (and we're both just restating what we read on etymonline), no? If not, I'm genuinely happy to update, edit, or improve it, if you can itemize the changes you're suggesting.
    – Dan Bron
    Oct 23, 2014 at 9:08
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    I guess you are right. The word "waste" had almost the same meaning as "vastus" from the first. Oct 24, 2014 at 10:18

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