I am studying Middle Eastern migration to Latin America at the end of the nineteenth century. One of the popular practices among these people was peddling, and there is much research on those who sell their goods on the streets. Yet, peddler is not the only word used for them. Hawker and beggar are also used by scholars. What is the difference between these words?

  • From the point of view of social historians, beggars, peddlers, and hawkers aren't much different from petty thieves in crowds (pickpockets and the like). They're all just peripheral members of society, making / taking a living at the margins. Nov 22, 2011 at 17:40
  • "petty thieves" may not be appropriate, at least, in the context of these immigrants. No one defines them as thieves in the scholarship. I have never seen such a definition from any social historian's perspective.
    – miraz
    Nov 22, 2011 at 17:51
  • It's not a moral issue. I'm just saying that from the "higher perspective" of social history they are all much of a muchness in terms of affecting the ongoing development of a society. Nov 22, 2011 at 18:00
  • I see your point. From the "higher perspective," they can be considered as misfits, but still I would not say thieves. Thanks again.
    – miraz
    Nov 22, 2011 at 18:06
  • Exactly - society's "fellow travellers" or "camp followers", if you will. Conquering armies invariably had plenty of them, which historians don't dwell on because they don't really affect the course of events much, in retrospect. Nov 22, 2011 at 18:12

4 Answers 4


Beggar is obviously different from the other two in that he is not offering goods for sale, just begging.

From the definitions, both hawkers and peddlers travel about selling things, but in my mind a hawker is more of a person who calls out their goods for sale in a public place, while a peddler may be going door to door.

  • Thanks for your response. I also can see the difference of beggar, however some scholars use this word for the people who work on the streets. I thought maybe the word beggar was an old version to define people who work on the streets. Because begging is a very old tradition, however peddling is kinda new practice. Anyway, thanks again.
    – miraz
    Nov 22, 2011 at 17:32
  • Agreed re beggars, but I don't recognise any distinction between where peddlers and hawkers conduct their activities. Nov 22, 2011 at 17:34
  • There are a lot of relations among them (beggars sometimes "sell" relatively worthless items in order to circumvent laws against panhandling) and my answer is a simplification, of course. Hopefully someone will offer up some background on the whole history of beggars' guilds that I recall hearing about via Howard Pyle's Robin Hood.
    – JeffSahol
    Nov 22, 2011 at 17:39
  • @Jasper Loy: That I do agree with - not hard-and-fast, but to me peddlers chimes more with tinkers, implying an itinerant lifestyle. But hawk from door to door seems like a pretty familiar "set phrase" to me. Nov 22, 2011 at 17:55

As noted, beggar is quite different from the other two (so much so that it really has no place in the discussion).

A peddler and a hawker both sell things, both might use a spiel to do so, and both are itinerant. My impression of the difference is that a peddler carries his merchandise around, so his selling activities take place in varied circumstances — the marketplace in the morning, a customer's doorstep in the afternoon, the next town over by tomorrow. A hawker, on the other hand, is more likely to be associated with some sort of storefront, even if that's just a blanket in an odd corner of the flea market, and even if said blanket is in a different flea market each day of the week. There is also the possibility that a hawker is employed by the store owner, while a peddler is almost certainly working for himself.

Interestingly, my impressions are somewhat contradicted by the Online Etymology Dictionary, which under hawk (v.1) notes that

Despite the etymological connection with stooping under a burden on one's back, a hawker is technically distinguished from a peddler by use of a horse and cart or a van.

Note that whatever the differences, they're all pretty vague, and in most cases (especially modernly) peddler and hawker can be used as exact synonyms.

  • Interesting! Thanks for your response. You say " a peddler is almost certainly working for himself." Sometimes a peddler is working herself which is my primary focus in this project. There were many women peddlers on the streets of Latin America.
    – miraz
    Nov 22, 2011 at 18:10
  • I was using "him" as a generic pronoun, not specifically a masculine one.
    – Marthaª
    Nov 22, 2011 at 18:13
  • Yes, I know, I do not judge your word choice. The point is no one expects to see women peddlers in the end of nineteenth century, especially in Latin America. I just wanted to say it.
    – miraz
    Nov 22, 2011 at 18:20

My (Scottish-influenced) dictionary says that the technical distinction is that a pedlar carries his goods from door to door personally, e.g. in a pack, while a hawker has a horse and cart (or possibly a van, nowadays). Peddler is the US spelling: peddle was a back-formation from pedlar or the archaic version pedder. There are no references I can check, apart from an old dialect use of ped meaning to sell; but it's plausible.


Both hawkers and pedlars are itinerant I.e they move from from street to street in search of customer . The only difference between the two is that hawker carries the goods on wheeled cart or on the back of animal and pedlar carries goods on his head or back.

  • 1
    Can you support this with some references? If not, this answer is merely opinion. And how does this answer differ from @TimLymington’s answer from 5 years ago?
    – Jim
    Dec 28, 2017 at 17:47

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