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I've been encountering the word litany in articles and some videos and they're sort of used to mean like "a list of", but upon looking in different dictionaries it seems like it is used to list some things that are repetitive or some things that are negative in a way.

An excerpt from an article:

The ideation session itself is the organized gathering of minds within that step where the litany of ideas is generated against some highly defined problems or desired outcomes.

The only dictionary source that I've seen that sort of defines it to list something in a generic way is Merriam-Webster, which defines it as "a sizable series or set" and yet it seems like these have negative connotations.

  • a litany of problems
  • The drug has a litany of possible side effects.

Just want to verify if I can use it some cases in the place of a list or set?

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    Litany is not negative when used in the religious sense.
    – nnnnnn
    Commented Nov 6, 2021 at 3:36
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    @nnnnnn In fact the secular use of 'litany' is (or was originally) metaphorical likening a person's recitation of their list of woes or complaints with the formal incantation or intonation of set religious text.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Nov 6, 2021 at 8:23
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    The point is that a liturgical litany is a very long prayer consisting of lists of petitions in a similar format, used on certain solemn occasions. It's all about asking God for protection against various evils. The term is used metaphorically for a long list of problems or grievances; it's unlikely to be used for a list of pleasant things. Commented Nov 6, 2021 at 8:59
  • Used non-religiously it is employed as irony. "He provided a litany of reasons as to why he had failed to complete his homework". Using the word "litany" whose non-ironic sense involves a collection of prayers and incantations, treats his excuses for not doing his homework with an element of ridicule.
    – WS2
    Commented Nov 6, 2021 at 19:05

1 Answer 1

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litany (n.)

A usually lengthy recitation or enumeration

a familiar litany of complaints M-W

A tedious recital or repetitive series.

a litany of complaints Lexico

(Litany is used negatively in all 21 of Lexico's examples.)

Draft additions 1997
A succession or catalogue of phenomena, esp. unfortunate events. OED


A search in Google Books specifically for positive uses turned up:

Indeed, while the August Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series of books, reminded us that space is big, it is not devoid of substance, being, as it is, infused with a dynamic litany of diverse astronomical objects. Martin Beech; Alpha Centauri

Between these bookends a litany of diverse figures extend their various brands of hospitality—Nestor, Menelaos, Kalypso, the Phaeacians, Kirke, Eumaios, the suitors, Penelope ... John Foley; Homer's Traditional Art

It is easy to assemble a diverse litany of attestations to Twain's centrality as the quintessentially “American” artist. Shelly F. Fishkin; Was Huck Black?

Trump, however, picked up the endorsement of former candidate Christie, an endorsement that received ample media attention, overshadowing the litany of endorsements received by Rubio. A. Pieper and J DeWitt; The Republican Resistance

Many people will see and agree with the value of wiretaps, tough measures, stronger laws, good solid police methods, but, unfortunately, the litany of good ideas is not matched with a corresponding litany of good results. Harold Smith; Transnational Crime

The secretary protested, offering a litany of achievements from his brief tenure. G. Sorenson and J. Burns; Dead Center

The show was nominated for a litany of awards, taking four Emmys, two People's Choice Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, and three Grammys. It is remembered for its artistic cinematography, soundtrack, unique pastel color scheme... Leah Perry; The Cultural Politics of U.S. Immigration

An unwavering belief in their superiority causes HIs [Harboring Imposters] to wield others as pawns to attain the endless litany of awards reserved for those whose offerings outmatch their peers... Matt DeLisi; Routledge International Handbook of Psychopathy and Crime

She won a litany of awards from a diverse group of institutions. Sen. C. Schumer; Nomination of: Richard Cordray and Mary Jo White

In his third term as Chairman of Cable Labs, the research and development consortium for the cable industry, he has a long litany of prizes and awards. U.S. Senate Committee; The Comcast/NBC Universal Merger


If we look at the Ngram for litany of awards, we see it has trended up, but its frequency is flattened to insignificance when compared with litany of complaints.

As mentioned in a comment above, litany in its religious sense can be used positively, e.g. litanies of praise. I was not sure what I would find before searching Google Books regarding its general, non-pejorative sense.

I agree with Edwin Ashworth's comment (below) that the above examples: "...are usually in formal/esoteric registers" and "the number of pejorative usages is far greater, and has to be seen as potentially having at least a fairly strong negative pull on any usage."

The inclusion of the adjectives lengthy, tedious and repetitive in the above dictionary definitions of litany might account for an upswing in positive uses, for example an award presenter might say "I won't bore you with a litany of Ms. White's many other awards and prizes," where litany is being used as a long (flattering) recitation and perhaps ironically as well.

The bottom line is that I would not use litany to refer to a simple list without being aware of the connotations. The facts that all of Lexico's examples were pejorative uses is instructive. It would be helpful if dictionaries would update their definitions or add usages notes regarding the question of positive usage. (It appears that the OED added the general sense for litany only in 1997; however, it does leave the door open with "esp[ecially] unfortunate events.")

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    It would, but there would be a preponderance of religious + negative uses. I'll leave it to someone who knows how to do it. My search was much more than biased: I was trying to see if positive uses exist. For example the Ngram for litany of awards I put in is completely flattened if you compare it with litany of complaints. Dictionaries aren't much help.
    – DjinTonic
    Commented Nov 6, 2021 at 11:35
  • Let's assume positive uses are fairly uncommon. How does one go about exerting "great care"? How does one get guidance?
    – DjinTonic
    Commented Nov 6, 2021 at 11:43
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    Answer updated. Thank you.
    – DjinTonic
    Commented Nov 6, 2021 at 13:24
  • @DjinTonic My search was much more than biased: I was trying to see if positive uses exist. -- it requires only one black swan to disprove "All swans are white" and you did it.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Nov 6, 2021 at 17:24
  • thanks for the very detailed insights. Just to be on the safe side, i won't probably use it to list some pleasant things except ironically as mentioned above. Commented Nov 7, 2021 at 7:18

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