transient
Posted: 08 April 2017 07:33 AM   [ Ignore ]
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A correspondent asks me: where did the use of “transient” as a noun meaning homeless people originate?  I’ve lost my OED access (and don’t know if “transient” is in the third edition anyway), so I thought I’d bring it here.  Any ideas or information?

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Posted: 08 April 2017 08:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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From the OED, second edition:

2. colloq. (orig. U.S.). A person who passes through a place, or stays in it only for a short time; spec. a ‘transient guest’ at a hotel or boarding-house. Also, a traveller, a tramp, a migrant worker.
1880 E. C. Rollins New Eng. Bygones 84 My grandmother held these transients in low esteem.
1893 K. Sanborn Truthful Woman S. Calif. 20 On an open, sunny site, and..frequented by ‘transients’ and business men of moderate means.
1894 Outing 24 260/1 Summer residents, transients, and all, had turned out early.
1941 H. G. Wells You can’t be too Careful ii. xv. 104 Whenever Doober’s had rooms to spare a card was put into the ground floor window, and there would be transients for three or four days.
1946 W. S. Maugham Then & Now vi. 33 Piero and the courier were to share a straw mattress in a corridor along with a number of transients only too glad to have a roof over their heads.
1959 ‘M. Renault’ Charioteer vi. 114 A respectable tenement full of transients in a time of flux.
1963 C. D. Simak They walked like Men iii. 17 He was snoring gently and he looked..like a transient who might have wandered in to find a place to sleep.
1978 Beautiful Brit. Columbia Winter 17 Transients pile in each winter to work the oil patch as soon as the muskeg freezes.

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Posted: 08 April 2017 09:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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languagehat - 08 April 2017 07:33 AM

I’ve lost my OED access .........

I feel for you. Hope you get it back soon!

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Posted: 08 April 2017 10:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Same here. deepest sympathy.

To my knowledge, “transient” never had the meaning of “a homeless person” ---- when used with reference to people, it simply meant “someone passing through”. If the word has acquired the “homeless” meaning, that can only be the result of its having being used sloppily, by people not fully acquainted with its etymology and original meaning.

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Posted: 08 April 2017 02:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Yes, language change is often the result of people using a word sloppily, not being fully acquainted with its etymology and original meaning.  Eppur si muove. In any case, it’s not that great a stretch.  I appreciate the OED citations (and the sympathy!), but they don’t help much with the question of its current (illegitimate, if you will) extension to what used to be called “bums.” Perhaps it’s too hard to disentangle the senses.

[ Edited: 08 April 2017 02:37 PM by languagehat ]
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Posted: 08 April 2017 09:46 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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You’re so right, lh. thank goodness, there are still plenty of people around (including participants in this forum) who use the English language with the care and respect it so richly deserves.

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