scav·​en·​ger ˈska-vən-jər How to pronounce scavenger (audio)
chiefly British : a person employed to remove dirt and refuse from streets
: one that scavenges: such as
: a garbage collector
: a junk collector
: a chemically active substance acting to make innocuous or remove an undesirable substance
: an organism that typically feeds on refuse or carrion

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You might guess that scavenger is a derivative of scavenge, but the reverse is actually true; scavenger is the older word, first appearing in English in the early 16th century, and the back-formation scavenge came into English in the mid-17th century. Scavenger is an alteration of the earlier scavager, itself from Anglo-French scawageour, meaning "collector of scavage." In medieval times, scavage was a tax levied by towns and cities on goods put up for sale by nonresidents in order to provide resident merchants with a competitive advantage. The officers in charge of collecting this tax were later made responsible for keeping streets clean, and that's how scavenger came to refer to a public sanitation employee in Great Britain before acquiring its current sense referring to a person who salvages discarded items.

Examples of scavenger in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web It is thought that scavengers, human activity, or fire (presumably from the sacrifice) may be responsible for any missing bones. Elizabeth Rayne, Ars Technica, 12 Dec. 2023 For the family of Mr. Gul, the garbage scavenger in Karachi, one lesson from his deportation was the futility of fighting the authorities. Zia Ur-Rehman, New York Times, 23 Nov. 2023 The researchers arbitrarily set a group size of five as necessary for the ancient humans to chase off a solitary giant hyena scavenger. Brian Handwerk, Smithsonian Magazine, 28 Sep. 2023 The scavengers steered clear of the trilobite’s gut, however, revealing that bubbling enzymatic activity may have continued even after the animal died. Jack Tamisiea, Scientific American, 28 Sep. 2023 Sometimes that meant a smorgasbord of small, birdlike dinosaurs, which were apparently so plentiful that the young predators selected and devoured the meaty hind legs, leaving the rest for scavengers. Brian Handwerk, Smithsonian Magazine, 8 Dec. 2023 After an organism dies, if the carcass is buried by mud, sand, or rock sediments, it's protected from scavengers and weathering. Sofia Quaglia, Discover Magazine, 21 Dec. 2023 No dead scavengers or other wildlife were found near the dead elephants, which would have been expected if the elephants had been poisoned. Will Sullivan, Smithsonian Magazine, 13 Nov. 2023 As predators and as scavengers, adults fed indiscriminately on all parts of a carcass, crushing through bones and swallowing animals whole. Brian Handwerk, Smithsonian Magazine, 8 Dec. 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'scavenger.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


alteration of earlier scavager, from Anglo-French scawageour collector of scavage (duty collected from non-resident street merchants), from skawage scavage, from Middle French dialect (Flanders) escauver to inspect, from Middle Dutch scouwen; akin to Old English scēawian to look at — more at show

First Known Use

1530, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of scavenger was in 1530


Dictionary Entries Near scavenger

Cite this Entry

“Scavenger.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 28 Feb. 2024.

Kids Definition


scav·​en·​ger ˈskav-ən-jər How to pronounce scavenger (audio)
: someone or something that scavenges
: an organism (as a vulture or hyena) that usually feeds on dead or decaying matter

from earlier scavager, from early French skawageour "one who collects a tax on goods sold by merchants from another town," from an early French dialect word escauver "to inspect"

Word Origin
In the U.S., scavenger is not the title of a particular occupation, but it is in Great Britain. There it means "street cleaner," which is a use close to the original meaning. In English towns in the Middle Ages, a tax was placed on goods offered for sale by merchants who came from another town for market day. This tax was called a skawage, from an early French dialect word escauwage, meaning "a showing or inspection (of goods)." The skawage gave the local merchants an advantage and discouraged outsiders from selling in the town. In this way it was like our modern-day tariff, or "tax on imports." The official whose duty it was to collect this tax was called the skawager. This word was later spelled scavager and then scavenger. When the towns came to need someone to keep the streets clean, this duty also became the job of the scavenger. The word scavenger is now used in the British Isles for all street cleaners. By the time British colonists started towns in America, the skawage tax was no longer collected, and the word scavenger came to be used here in its more general sense of "someone who collects usable things from what has been discarded."

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