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photograph of the Dionne quintuplets in 1934


litter. (verb) To give birth to a number of babies at once, to have a large family, or the act of giving birth. Indiscriminate procreation.

Literally, this applies to mammals for which this is the common expectation, as is the case for dogs. As a noun, it refers to the specific group of pups born together. Figuratively, it may simply reference the children in a large family.

It is said “slightingly of human beings,” according to the Century Dictionary.reference 1 Indeed it is; all kinds of potential prejudice are implied here. Large families and—implicitly—high fertility is often, if spuriously, associated with people of lower socioeconomic backgrounds and those of specific racial, ethnic, and religious groups. Sometimes the implication is that a “litter” results from promiscuous sexuality (behaviors a dog in heat or a bitch might display), at other times “litter” may suggest ignorance of or a lack of conformity to a particular standard of contraception.


1. Whitney, William Dwight, and Benjamin E. Smith. 1914. The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia; with a New Atlas of the World. Century Co. Accessed from


About the illustration: Figure 1 is a picture of the famous Dionne quintuplets. Born in 1934 to Elzire and Oliva Dionne in a small town in Ontario, the Dionne Quintuplets were taken from their family and cared for by the government. They became a popular “tourist attraction” during the depression era, clearly establishing their Otherness. © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation.
see also: pick of the litter; runt Last updated: March 25, 2008
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