Word Study – woolgathering


Gathering wool, by Henry Herbert La Thangue (1859-1929)


As a writer and an editor, I work with words all the time. In fact, I love words. I specifically love different words. Like Serendipity. Or woolgathering. Where did these words come from? Do they still mean the same thing? You can find out a lot about a word just by looking it up in the dictionary. But sometimes there’s more. And sometimes there isn’t.


  • v. to engage in woolgathering. (Gee, that’s helpful, isn’t it?)
  • n. idle or absent-minded indulgence in fantasy; daydreaming (Now we’re getting somewhere, by why ‘woolgathering’?)

Word History for woolgathering 

The word comes from the 1550s, meaning “indulging in wandering fancies and purposeless thinking,” from the literal meaning “gathering fragments of wool torn from sheep by bushes, etc.”

Now, it’s starting to make some sense. I’m sure, as sheep got caught in the bushes, they left tufts of hair, here and there, in no set pattern. That picture gives us the word ‘wandering’. But I have to disagree with ‘purposeless’. Many times it’s just this kind of daydreaming that gives us the most relaxation, new ideas about stories, and could lead to a nap. These are all good things.

Let’s visit Merriam Webster. 

  • indulgence in idle daydreaming (That’s much more helpful than Dictionary.com)

Word History from MW

Woolgathering once literally referred to the act of gathering loose tufts of wool that had gotten caught on bushes and fences as sheep passed by. Woolgatherers must have seemed to wander aimlessly, gaining little for their efforts, for in the mid-16th century “woolgathering” began to appear in figurative phrases such as “my wits (or my mind) went a-woolgathering” – in other words, “my mind went wandering aimlessly.” From there, it wasn’t long before the word woolgathering came to suggest the act of indulging in purposeless mind-wandering.

Interesting, eh? I wonder if we can somehow manage to use this word in an actual sentence today? Did you? I’ll tell you if you tell!

More later,


woolgathering. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/woolgathering (accessed: July 23, 2016).

“Woolgathering.” Merriam-Webster.com. Accessed July 22, 2016. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/woolgathering

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