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Someone just sent me a quotation from the explorer/naturalist John Muir, in which he makes the following etymological claim:

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.

The quotation goes back to Albert Palmer, The Mountain Trail and Its Message (1911), who reports that Muir said it to him in a conversation they were having about hiking. Palmer withholds judgment about "whether the derivation just given is scientific or fanciful"—but Merriam-Webster seems inclined to view it as the latter. From Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003):

saunter vi {prob. fr. ME santren to muse} (ca. 1667) : to walk about in an idle or leisurely manner : STROLL

The Online Etymology Dictionary likewise appears to be unimpressed by the "sainte-terre-er" explanation:

saunter (v.) late 15c., santren "to muse, be in reverie," of uncertain origin despite many absurd speculations. Meaning "walk with a leisurely gait" is from 1660s, and may be a different word. Klein suggests this sense of the word derives via Anglo-French sauntrer (mid-14c.) from French s'aventurer "to take risks," but OED finds this "unlikely."

In an interesting extended discussion of the Muir quotation, Etymology Online traces the "à la sainte terre" origin theory to Samuel Johnson's 1755 Dictionary of the English Language and beyond. Johnson has this entry for saunter, which he augments with instances of the word (in various forms) in literary use by L'Estrange, Dryden, Locke, Prior, Tickel, Gay, and Pope:

To SAUNTER v.n. [aller à la sainte terre, from idle people who roved about the country, and asked charity under pretence of going à la sainte terre, to the holy land, or sans terre, as having no settled home] To wander about idly ; to loiter ; to linger.

Etymology Online then traces the roots of Johnson's proposed etymology back to Nathan Bailey, An Universal Etymological Dictionary, second edition (1724), which actually proposes two possible derivations:

To SAUNTER, {of Sauter or Santeller, F. to dance, q. d. to dance to and fro, or of Sainte-Terre, F.} to go idling up and down. See to Santer.

Bailey's etymological entry for santer is quite elaborate:

To SANTER, {of Sancte Terre, F. or Sancta Terra, L. i. e. the Holy Land, because when there were frequent Expeditions to the Holy Land many idle Persons went from Place to Place upon pretence they had taken the Cross upon them, or intended to do so, and to go thither} to wander up and down.

I have three questions about the etymology of saunter:

  1. What is the earliest source in English to make the connection between saunter and sainte-terre?
  2. What is the earliest recorded instance in English of saunter/santer in the sense of "to wander or go idling up and down"?
  3. What is the likeliest etymology of saunter?
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    Hmm, I'm dubious of that first claim since the villages French speakers sauntered through on the way to the Holy Land weren't English-speaking, whereas the suffix "-ers" to form "saunterers," from which it suggests "saunter" is a backformation, is English. England isn't on the way from France to the Holy Land. The suffix "-ers" wouldn't have been applied such that they would be known as "sainte-terre-ers." May 4 at 19:34
  • Now, the suffix "-er" is used in German to mean one who's from a place, but pilgrims sauntering to the Holy Land were clearly not from there, so that would be an odd thing for German villagers to say, never mind that no German-speaking villages were along any part of that journey, even the route from Northeastern France never crossing into Germany but going southeast through France into Italy and then either heading south through Rome to go by ship to the Holy Land or then heading southeast from Italy through the Balkans, no path crossing into Germany since it was out of the way. May 4 at 19:36
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    The OED says that the word is of "obscure origin". It has an entry from 1475, but doubts that it is identical with the modern word. While sceptical of a different popular etymology, it makes no mention at all of the "Holy Land" idea. The sainte terre suggestion sounds a little bit like POSH = "port out, starboard home" - a natty idea which someone thought up with a libation or two. And Dr Samuel Johnson would be my first suspect.
    – WS2
    May 4 at 21:43
  • 1
    I don't know what benefit can be had even if you can "guess" the origin when it's most likely not going to be a definitive answer.
    – listeneva
    May 9 at 3:22
  • 2
    @WS2 Reminds me also of the common myth that the F-word comes from "Fornication Under Consent of King".
    – Barmar
    May 10 at 19:29
5
+500

It isn't clear where exactly saunter comes from etymologically (the OED says "Of obscure origin"), but it was first used as early as the 1650s and the saint-terre folk etymology was present by 1699.

When was saunter first used?

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the earliest citation for your meaning of saunter in 1671:

  1. †(a) To wander or travel about aimlessly or unprofitably; to travel as a vagrant. Obsolete. (b) To walk with a leisurely and careless gait; to stroll. Also, to travel by vehicle in a slow and leisurely manner.

1671 S. Skinner & T. Henshaw Etymologicon Linguæ Anglicanæ To Saunter up and down, à. Fr. G. Sauter, Sauteller, Saltare, Saltitare, q.d. huc illuc Saltitare seu Discurrere.

Note that this comes from a lexicon, and it lists a speculative root word: sauter, which broadly speaking means to jump or leap (Wiktionary). This corresponds to Bailey's first etymology.

Meanwhile, the earliest instance of saunter in English I can find is in the 1657 edition of a translation of Don Quixote printed by Thomas Hodgkin, where the action appears to refer to a kind of walking movement:

THE Great Cid Hamet Benengeli, the Famous Arabian and Manchegan Author, reports in his grave, lofty, pleasant, merry-conceited Story, that after the long and learned Discourse between Sancho and his Master, Don Quixote lifting up his Eyes, saw to the number of about twen∣ty Persons, all in a row one behind another, like Beads upon a string, who being link't together, with every one a Sausage of Iron about his Neck, and manacl'd to boot, came saunter, saunter along, till they met each other full butt.

Methinks I see the Tom-ladles already at their Duties, saunter, saunter, gaping and staring, wi' their hands i' their Pockets, and enquiring through all the Streets of Toboso, for the Lady Dulcinea, who, it may be, has met 'em five or six times full But, and yet are they still to seek; for they know her no more then they knew my Father deceas'd.

When was sainte-terre first alluded to as an etymological origin?

The 1699 lexicon A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew ties the etymology to pilgrims traveling and calling "Sainct terre":

Saunter, to loiter Idly, a Term borrowed from those Religious Counterfeits, who under the Colour of Pilgrimages, to the Holy Land, us'd to get many Charities, crying still, Sainct terre, Sainct terre, having nothing but the Holy Land in their Mouths, tho' they stay'd alwaies at Home.

These details correspond to Bailey's second etymology.

4

A surprisingly elusive word. I haven't got anywhere with it.

  1. I can't find an earlier connection between saunter and sainte-terre than yours.
  2. Nor any trace of its early use to mean "amble".
  3. I doubt if it had anything to do with the vigorous dance-step: WW1 'trench French' kept the original meanings of words - like Wipers, napoo, compray, and (maybe) skive (esquiver) - even if it wrecked their pronunciation.

As the crusaders crossed France on their way to the Holy land, their flags, horses and sheer numbers might have told the French where they were going. But recruits limping home in dribs and drabs may well have been asked what they were up to. Pointing behind them and saying "Saint terre" might have kept the peace, even though it's the reverse of the French (and Italian and Latin) word-order! If the Scottish 'saunt' (saint) preserves an old English pronunciation of the word, it's not much of a leap from saunt terre to saunter.

Sortir - to go out - might be another possible source. (It'd be quite English to ask your mates 'How about a little sortir later?') Sentier - a footpath in the countryside - probably can't be dragged into this!

4

I have uncovered some further material relevant to the first and second posted questions, although not to the third.


An early source linking 'saunter' to 'Sancta Terra'

With regard to the earliest source in English to make the connection between saunter and sainte-terre, the following entry for "to Saunter about" appears in Guy Miege, The Great French Dictionary (1688):

to Saunter about, to go idling up and down, batre le Pavé, courir les Rues, comme une personne qui n’a rien à faire [beating the Pavement, running the Streets, like a person who has nothing to do].

This Expression is thought to come from Sancta Terra, the Latine Name for the Holy Land; those being said at first to have Sauntered about, or up and down, who pretended to have been at the Holy Land.

Miege doesn't site a source for this claimed derivation, but the 1699 slang dictionary cited in TaliesinMerlin's answer makes essentially the same claim, which suggests either that some earlier print source had made the assertion or that by 1699 the origin theory was fairly well established in folk etymology. Of course, the Canting Crew slang dictionary might have relied on Miege as its source, but it doesn't seem especially beholden to formal dictionaries for most of its information.


Early instances of 'saunter' in the sense of 'wander or go idling'

With regard to the earliest use in English of saunter (or its variants) in the sense of "to wander or go idling up and down," I found several instances from before 1671 (the year of publication of the earliest instance that the OED cites).

From "Against the Arians, Hipocrites, and Disceuers," in Epigrams and Sentences Spirituall in Vers, of Gregori Nazanzen, an Auncient & Famous Bishop in the Greke Churche Englished by Tho. Drant. (1568):

Now Lordes you set aloaft, / With Pantackles, and moilles / Your fete are feanced softe, / To pageanes, and to plaies, / Ye sawnter vp, and downe, / On Theaters ye shine, / The freshest in the towne / Pretensed outward shape / Ye conterféete, and steale / But in Religion true, / Pure inwardly to deale, / You are from that as farre, / As miserable stockes, / As most infected shéepe / Of all your scabye flockes.

The context of this very early instance suggests that to "sawnter up and down" was to walk in an idle and unhurried but conspicuous manner that drew the attention of others.

From From William Wycherley, Hero and Leander in Burlesque (1669):

For she was forc'd, although 'twas not the fashion, / To put him first in mind of consummation; / And told him that about Twelve of the Clock / She wou'd expect him with clean Sheets & Smock, / At her own Mothers House, at sign of Tow'r: / But warn'd him he shou'd knock at the Back-door; / And that her old Nurse should sit up, and spin, / To drown the noise he'd make, and let him in. / In the mean time to th' May-pole, and the Green / She bid him go to see, and to be seen, / Or where he wou'd might saunter up and down, / And count the Signs, and fine things of the Town: / Or to the Shore might go, if nothing else / He had to do, and pick up pretty Shells. / But howsoe're himself he chose to recreate, / He should be sure to keep her Honours Secret.

Here, as in the 1568 instance, saunter refers to idle wandering of a sort that invites public notice and perhaps even notoriety.

From "A Bat, Bramble, and Cormorant," in Roger L’Estrange, Fables, of Aesop and other Eminent Mythologists : With Morals and Reflections (1669):

A Bat, a Bramble, and a Cormorant, Enter’d into Covenants with Articles, to joyn Stocks, and Trade in Partnership together. The Bat’s Adventure was Ready Money that he took up at Interest; The Brambles was in Cloaths; and the Cormorants, in Brass. They put to see, and so it fell out, that Ship and Goods were Both Lost by Stress of Weather : But the Three Merchants by Providence got safe to Land. Since the Time of this Miscarriage, the Bat never Stirs abroad till Night for fear of his Creditors. The Bramble lays hold of All the Cloaths he can come at in Hope to Light upon his Own again : And the Cormorant is still Sauntering by the Sea side, to see if he can find any of his Brass cast up.

And here, sauntering might be likened to "lingering" or "loitering," as in the 1630 example, with an emphasis on hanging around rather than on moving from one place to another.

A slightly later but striking usage appears in Lancelot Addison, A Modest Plea for the Clergy ; Wherein Id Briefly Considered, the Original, Antiquity, Necessity (1677):

But not to saunter away time in sounding of Puddles, it sufficeth our present purpose to take notice, That those Provinces among the Romans over which they set Procurators, Prætors and Proconsuls, were styled Cleri. And that in allusion to this acception of the word, the Charge or Portion assigned by Lot to Matthias, whither, as most conceive, he was to go preach the Gospel, was called Κληζοι Διαηονιας και ’Αποςολης, the Lot of Ministry & Apostleship.

The central meaning of "saunter away time" in this example is "to idle away time" or "to waste time"—without any hint of physical movement. This particular figurative sense of saunter is novel for its time and does not seem to have caught on.


Early instances in which 'saunter' may have a different meaning

One very early instance of santering appears in George Joye, *The exposicion of Daniel the Prophete Gathered oute of Philip Melanchton, Iohan Ecolampadius, Chonrade Pellicane [and] out of Iohan Draconite* (1545)

We exhorte therfore as many as we may for the glorie of god that thei separat themselues from this vngodly facciō both in iugement & will: as did the Maccabeis exhorte many to auoid the company of the counsels confedered with Antiochus we warne also the lerned and prudent which yet for the studie and zele of peace (as thei wolde be sene) or for a certain singulare precise morosite wolde apere to abhorre and estiewe these new facions and soden mutacions (as thei call them) being alto ware to wise and to charely circumspecte in this their slake santering leste their rasshnes (as thei pretex it) shuld confirme the enimies of the gospell therfore decree thei thus to stād still lyke idle idols and in securite as it were afarre of loking vpon and beholdinge the bront of the bataill no handis putting forthe nor yet once (whē thei might) to helpe to any amendement or reformacion. But the mater is to manifest and to farre gone as may easely be perceiued of men of clere iugement not being corrupt with any affeccions.

The sleek sauntering in this example seems to have a lot in common (as a matter of attribute attitude) with the sauntering of the "Lordes" in Nanzan's 1568 polemic against Arians, hypocrites, and deceivers. There is an element of the flaunting fashionplate in both descriptions—but I am not altogether sure whether "santering" in Joye's case entails actual promenading or whether the author has some other idea in mind.

Even less clear is the sense of saunters in this example from William Turner, The Ffirst and Seconde Partes of the Herbal of William Turner Doctor in Phisick (1568):

Although that all they that haue writen of herbes / haue affyrmed and holden / that the Brake [fern] hath nether sede / nor frute: yet haue I dyuers tymes proued the contrarye / whiche thinge I will testefye here in this place / for there sakes that be studentes in the knowledge of herbes / I haue foure yeres together one after an other vpon the vigill of saynt Iohn the Baptiste (whiche we call in Englishe mydsomer euen) soughte for this sede of Brakes vpon the nyghte / & in dede I fownde it earlye in the mornynge before the daye brake / the sede was small blacke and lyke vnto poppye. I gatherid it after this maner: I laide shetes and mollen leaues vnderneth the brakes whiche receyued the sede / that was by shakynge and beatynge broughte oute of the branches and leaues. Manye brakes in some places had no sede at all / but in other pla∣ces agayne: a man shall fynde sede in euerye brake / so that a man maye gather a hundred oute of one brake alone / but I went aboute this busynes / all figures / coniurynges / saunters / charmes / wytchcrafte / and sorseryes sett a syde / takynge wyth me two or three honest men to bere me cōpanye / when I soughte this seede / all the villages aboute / did shyue wyth bonfyers that the people made there / & sometyme when I soughte the sede / I fownde it / and sometyme I fownde it not.

I have no idea what saunters means here, although in context one might suppose that it refers to some sort of amulet or invocation with supernatural powers.

Earliest of all instances of santer that I found in a search of Early Enlish Books Online is this one from The myracles of oure blessyd lady (1496):

And now go home vnto thy monaesterye / for whan thou comest thyder thou shalt be chosen abbot. And whan thou art abbot / teche the couent to saye my sawter / as I haue tolde the. And preche it ouer to all the people to do the same / that well it may be to them bothe in lyfe and in dethe. Seuen yere thou shalt lyue to preche and teche the people that they maye exarcyse and vse to saye my sawter. And at the seuenste yeres end yu shalt dye & come to me. Also knowe thou for certayne that many the whiche sholde haue perysshed and be loste / shall be saued by my sawter saynge. And whan she had this sayd she assended vp to heuen / and anone after this monke was made abbot. And thanne he taught his brethren &. ye people there how they sholde say our ladyes santer. & also by ye space of that-seuen yere he preched dylygentely to all folke / to kepe & vse the same forme & saynge / as he. was warned before of our blessyd lady· And whan this was done he blessedly dyed & went to heuen.

But this instance of santer seems most likely to be a misreading of sawter—that is, psalter—which appears (three times) earlier in the extract.


Conclusions

Instances in print of an explicit claimed connection between saunter and sainte-terre (or Sancta Terra) go back to at least 1688.

Published instances in which saunter seems to carry the meaning "to wander or go idling up and down" appear at least as early as 1568 and perhaps as early as 1545.

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  • Very good. One minor error: for The Rover part 2, the 1631 date must be a database error. The play was produced in 1681: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rover_(play) May 12 at 18:04
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    @TaliesinMerlin: You are right. Aphra Behn wasn't even born until 1640, and part 2 of "The Rovers" was published in 1681. Since that change in date puts this example outside the period that my answer focuses on, I think I'll just remove the example from my answer. Thank you for pointing out the error!
    – Sven Yargs
    May 12 at 19:24

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