Is it a sin to be a sloth? The meaning of "sloth"

The word ‘sloth’ is such a cool word! Not only is it the name of our favorite animal, but it just sounds cool. However, you might know that the word ‘sloth’ has other meanings.

Mainly, ‘sloth’ is a synonym for ‘laziness’. Because of this and the casual observations of sloths, people think they are lazy. But really sloths are always working hard to guarantee their survival, just at their own pace!  If you want to know why sloths are slow, be sure and check out our article about that fact: Why Are Sloths So Slow? How Slow Are Sloths?

So, back to that word ‘sloth’. Are sloths called sloths because they are slow? Or do we use the word sloth to refer to slow because slows are slow. (Does that make sense?) Well, nevermind, the answer is easy: Sloths were named as such because of how people perceived them. The world ‘sloth’ existed long before anyone who spoke English knew what a sloth was.

So, here’s the story:

The first place where Europeans ‘discovered’ sloths was in Brazil, during the 1500s when that lang was being ‘settled’ by the Portuguese. And it was the Portuguese that gave the sloths their name, calling them bichos-preguiça which means “laziness-creatures”, but this was shortened to just preguiça, or laziness. But of course, another word for laziness is sloth.

That wasn’t the only name for sloths at the time. Likely many native peoples had names for the sloths in their own languages. One of those, which was recorded by André Thevat, a French monk who visited Brazil in 1555. He found that the native Brazilians called the sloth by the name of haüthi. Thevat’s description of the sloth served as an introduction between the South American creature and scientists back in Europe. But before we get into his description, we have to show you his illustration!

Illustration of a sloth in André Thevet's Les Singularitez de la France Antarctique (Paris: heirs of Maurice de la Porte 1558) (Courtesy of Christie's)

Pretty great, right? I mean, in a totally awful kind of way! Beyond his fabulous illustration, Thevat described the sloth as a “little bear” with a head “almost like that of a little baby”.  See?!?! Sloths are super cute. Even this guy knew!

Anyways, back to the world preguiça. Another cleric, Samuel Purchas, translated the word preguica as sloth in the description he published of our favorite creatures in 1613, and this is likely how the name of the sloth came into our language. But the word sloth had been around for many centuries before.

Even in Old English (that’s the English spoken before the Middle Ages, way before Shakespeare) there was a word slæwð.  Don’t ask us how to pronounce it, but it meant the same thing as sloth, and we think it was pronounced pretty similarly. To better understand the origins of sloth, just think about this:

Hmm…. so, if the adjective true becomes truth, and the adjective deep becomes depth, then the adjective slow becomes sloth! Had you already figured that out?

Sloth, the sin

So, of course if we are talking about slow rather than lazy, then of course sloth is a fair name for our friends in the rainforest. They are certainly slow. But why is the word sloth associated with laziness and why does it have such a negative connotation?

While we think of the word sloth as the name and adorable animal, and we now know that it is related to the adjective slow, the first definition for the word is actually is defined as such:

1. reluctance to work or make an effort; laziness.

This stems heavily from the use of the word in Christian, mainly Catholic beliefs. In this case once more the word sloth is used to translate another term. In Latin, historically the main language of the Cahtholic Church, one of the Seven Deadly Sins is called acedia. This word more specifically means a lack of caring, not carrying out one’s duties in society or to God. A monk named Evargius Ponticus set out a list of 8 evil thoughts in the 4th century AD, a list which was edited by Pope Gregory in 590 AD.  Both lists included acedia, or sloth, as one of the sins one should avoid.

Here is a picture of the Seven Deadly Sins represented by animals. But what gives?  I don’t see a sloth there!  Moreau.henri - Own work, Public Domain,

The important thing to point out is that the Christian thinkers who denoted sloth as a sin did not do so in an accusatory way, and they did not mean it in the sense of just being a more slow-natured person.  Sloth the sin refers to being dejected, jaded, or apathetic, and the point of describing it as a sin was not to punish the people (like some of us, I bet) who have a calm, chilled-out nature, but to warn people about living with a lack of zeal for their faith. 

So, even though they share the name, a sloth and sloth the sin are really quite different ideas. A sloth isn’t lazy or apathetic about life, in fact they are constantly close to tragedy and everything they do is about guaranteeing their survival.

 A sloth by any other name

Before we finish today, the discussion of the word sloth and how it became  both the word of a sin, an unfortunate quality, and an adorable animal. So for example, the word preguiça is used to mean our forest friends and the deadly sin in Portugues. Sloth in Spanish is perezoso (the animal), which literally means “lazy thing”. Meanwhile the sin sloth, is called pereza. So, what about other languages:



So, we see that the name for sloths in most languages is related to the idea of being lazy or slow, which is an understandable interpretation. However, we do notice that in some languages they make a distinction between sloth the sin and sloth the cutest most adorable animal ever!

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