I wasn't aware that the word 'litany' could be used when describing a collection of physical objects, but there it is on the Slate website:

"He found a vast plastic-plankton soup and a litany of bigger objects:a volleyball, a cathode-ray tube for a 19-inch TV, a truck tire mounted on a steel rim..."

I've been known to miss obscure uses now and again but this seems out of bounds. I'm interested to hear what the community has to say about it.

  • 'Litany' could refer to the (tedious) list of the objects, but not to the objects themselves. – AmI Oct 15 '18 at 7:00
  • A list isn’t physical… doesn’t really matter if it’s a list of physical objects. – Ry- Oct 15 '18 at 7:07
  • It’s probably just an extension of "litany of failures": it sounds like the context is the failure to keep the oceans clean. By the way, opinion-based answers are discouraged, so you might be better to phrase your question as "here is the dictionary definition of litany, how has it come to be used in this context?". – Pam Oct 15 '18 at 7:25
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    'Litany' has a specific, religious meaning. If used otherwise, it is a metaphoric use. – Nigel J Oct 15 '18 at 11:09

In this sense, it's used to specify a certain kind of 'collection': a (perceived to be) tedious or repetitive one. This is from the historical meaning of a litany being a series of supplications.

You wouldn't use it to describe something nice, like a litany of birthday gifts (unless you were a really grumpy git).

Here's the historical meaning:


  1. a ceremonial or liturgical form of prayer consisting of a series of invocations or supplications with responses that are the same for a number in succession.

A litany is a list. It's all words. It must be a collection of things that are said, or at least sayable, whether they get pronounced or not. A litany of complaints, a litany of excuses, a litany of desires, of goals, of new ideas -- all refer to words, or the ideas underlying words, as if they were spoken.

You can't have a litany of physical objects like chairs, or cars, or soups, or sporting goods, or anything that isn't potentially linguistic. You can have a litany, or list, of names for any of these, but not of the things themselves.

In the example sentence, one wouldn't use the word list for what he found, because he didn't find a list of objects -- he found the objects themselves. Similar remarks for litany.

  • He found a list of bigger objects: a volleyball, a cathode-ray tube for a 19-inch TV, and a truck tire mounted on a steel rim.
  • He found a litany of bigger objects: a volleyball, a cathode-ray tube for a 19-inch TV, and a truck tire mounted on a steel rim.
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    Not my downvote, but there seems to be some uses or common collocations that have seriously blurred the lines here. When the subject is one where the listener can readily imagine a list, without any expectation of there being such a list at hand, using littany to cue the listener to imagine their own list or append their own list to a list begun by the author is fairly common in serious writing. Idiomatically, "the usual litany of [things]" nets 31,000 hits. A fair percentage are either edge cases or wrong according to your answer. I'd probably score this as a rhetorical technique, though. – Phil Sweet Oct 15 '18 at 21:09
  • Quite possibly that's what's happening; metaphors are pretty powerful. As for downvotes, I pay no attention either way -- votes are irrelevant. – John Lawler Oct 15 '18 at 21:15
  • "[...] misrepresentation then permits the defendants to cite the usual litany of cases dealing with carriers who misfile pleadings." "I relied, first, on the usual litany of documentary evidence, including relevant federal, provincial, and comparative legislation, academic writing, government and [...]" "GOP will settle for the usual litany of tax cuts and ditch reform [...]" "Once again, we're hearing the usual litany of Republican politicians — starting with our president — offering up their “thoughts and prayers” for ..." – Phil Sweet Oct 15 '18 at 21:15
  • Oh, that's a legal context. That doesn't count -- lawyers use language in ways no one else ever does or did, and they are not people anybody wants to talk like. – John Lawler Oct 15 '18 at 21:17
  • Thanks @PhilSweet, that's just the sort of context I was looking for. Still sounds awkward to me though, and I wouldn't use it myself. – Max K Oct 18 '18 at 5:34

Plenty more where that one came from:


a large group or collection


a group, set, or company.


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