I have seen this sign below on a few United States Post Offices in my area of Virginia. The sign prohibits 3 acts:


No soliciting is obvious. However, loitering and loafing are nearly synonymous in dictionaries. I have to assume there is a difference between the two. Why else would both be listed?

Is there a legal distinction between loitering and loafing?

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  • There's not really a difference. Sorry man, its just the words they choose for the sign.
    – Putvi
    Apr 11, 2019 at 21:42
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    @Putvi Do you have evidence to support your claim? Or is that just your opinion?
    – Keltari
    Apr 11, 2019 at 21:45
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    I've never seen the word "loafing" used on a sign like this before in my life, nor have I ever seen it used in formal legal writing. Perhaps it is something specific to some VA ordinance or the regional dialect? In a similar vein, the word "whiskey" is used on Colorado law to refer to all distilled spirits.
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 11, 2019 at 22:32
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    @ohwilleke I have never seen loafing used... ever. I see no loitering signs all the time. However, this is a sign on a federal building and I am sure there was a government body that sat around for days days deciding what what the sign's contents would be. I find it highly doubtful that they used two words that have the same meaning.
    – Keltari
    Apr 12, 2019 at 16:06
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    @Keltari "I find it highly doubtful that they used two words that have the same meaning." I don't. Redundant terminology is very common in legal writing.
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 12, 2019 at 17:02

3 Answers 3


In most states or localities "loitering " has a specific statutory meaning. For example in Prince Georges County. MD Section 14-139.03 provides:

(a) In this Section, "loiter" means for a person to:

(1) Remain on a public street, sidewalk, or pathway, including one privately-owned but used by the public in general, so as to obstruct the free passage of a pedestrian or vehicle after a regular or special police officer has notified the person that the action is unlawful and has requested the person to move;

(2) Remain in or on a vehicle on a public street, sidewalk, or pathway, including one privately-owned but used by the public in general, so as to obstruct the free passage of a pedestrian or vehicle after a regular or special police officer has notified the person that the action is unlawful and has requested the person to move;

(3) Refuse or fail to leave a private business, commercial establishment, or parking lot that is posted with conspicuous "No Loitering" signs if the business or establishment is not open for business, and the person has been requested to leave by the owner, the owner's agent, or a regular or special police officer, unless the person:

(A) Has written permission from the owner, lessee, or operator to be present; or

(B) Is window-shopping under conditions and at a time of the day or night that would be considered conducive to that activity;

(4) Refuse or fail to leave a private business or commercial establishment that is open for business, or a parking lot of the business or establishment, after having been requested to do so by the owner or the owner's agent;

(5) Refuse or fail to leave a public building, public grounds, or a public recreational area, or a parking lot of a public building, public grounds, or a public recreational area, after being requested to do so by a regular or special police officer or by a regularly employed guard, watchman, or other authorized employee of the agency or institution responsible for the public building, public grounds, recreational area, or parking lot if the circumstances indicate that the person has no apparent lawful business or purpose to pursue at that place;

(and so on)

I do find that at one time New York state (and some other states) had an "anti-loafing law" which

required all men between the ages of 18 and 50 to be “habitually and regularly engaged in some lawful, useful, and recognized business, profession, occupation, trade, or employment until the termination of the war.”

This was passed during World War I (1918) and the then NY Governor said:

The purpose … is to force every able-bodied male person within the State to do his share toward remedying the conditions due to the present shortage of labor.

This is confirmed at https://andrewchernoff.wordpress.com/tag/anti-loafing-laws/

I don't know if it was ever challenged on constitutional grounds.

Other than that, I cannot find any published law defining loafing.

  • There is something delightfully circular about loitering being defined as "Refuse or fail to leave a private business (...) with conspicuous "No Loitering" signs": The signs don't actually prohibit loitering, they are actually necessary for the action to constitute loitering.
    – sgf
    Sep 2, 2019 at 9:46
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    Probably wasn't challenged during the wars. Individual rights jurisprudence under the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights was virtually non-existent until WWI when early First Amendment cases started to gain traction, didn't really gain steam again until the Civil Rights movement, and didn't come into full blossom until the 1960s and 1970s. Also, any ruling that would have invalidated wartime anti-loafing law might have cast doubt on the constitutionality of the military draft which is something no upper middle class judge at the time (i.e. no judges at all) would have dared to suggest.
    – ohwilleke
    Sep 8, 2019 at 23:12
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    Early individual rights jurisprudence was mostly pro-business. As Wikipedia explains in its Lochner era entry: "The Lochner era is a period in American legal history from 1897 to 1937 in which the Supreme Court of the United States is said to have made it a common practice "to strike down economic regulations adopted by a State based on the Court's own notions of the most appropriate means for the State to implement its considered policies," by using its interpretation of substantive due process to strike down laws held to be infringing on economic liberty or private contract rights."
    – ohwilleke
    Sep 8, 2019 at 23:15
  • The terms "loaf" and "loiter" could be usefully applied to different overlapping concepts, alluded to by the definitions of "loiter" here and in other answers, but it's not uncommon for one to be used where the other would be more appropriate. For example, the sign on some Amtrak trains that says "Do not loiter in vestibule" could be interpreted as merely saying that someone who is loafing in the vestibule at the end of a car must avoid obstructing the passage of anyone else moving between cars, rather than saying that one should seek to minimize the amount of time one spends...
    – supercat
    Feb 8, 2023 at 22:32
  • ...in that area. While railway derailments and collisions are unlikely, they can occur without warning, and someone who happens to be in the vestibule when that happens would likely be injured or killed. The risk to someone who spends an hour loafing in a vestibule would be orders of magnitude greater than the risk to someone who passes through expeditiously.
    – supercat
    Feb 8, 2023 at 22:37

The Virginia penal system seems to have rules against loafing and loitering, in Powhatan correctional center:

No loafing, loitering, or crowding around the Dispensary, Medical areas...

There will be no loafing or loitering in the weight room

and the Northern Correctional facility of West Virginia

NO loafing WILL BE permitted in any corridor area...

Loafing on the stairs WILL NOT BE permitted.

Also some city with a city code section 14-42 had an ordinance against loitering, loafing or idling.

Lawrence KS in their ordinances Ch XIV (Public offenses) says

14-801 It shall be unlawful for any child under the age of eighteen (18) years to wander, lounge, loaf, loiter or play in, about, or upon any public street, alley, sidewalk...

and 14-802 also prohibits parents etc. from letting their children do same – loafing, lounging, wandering etc. are not defined.

Newport RI city code 9.04.060 defines loitering:

"loitering," or "loiter" means remaining idly in essentially one location, including the concepts of spending time idly, loafing or standing about aimlessly, and also including the colloquial expression "hanging around."

The Lawrence ordinance is a classic case of linguistically-redundant overkill in legal writing, likewise "in, about or upon any public street". Rather than assume the terms are different, I assume they are redundantly intended to cover every imaginable variant of the term "loiter".


tl;dr: there's no distinction in this context. Courts interpret loaf to have the same meaning as loiter.

Was there an ancient distinction?

Linguistically, it's possible. Loiter likely derives from the Middle Dutch for unsteady, loose, or tottering. (The OED's nautical reference to a loitering or shivering sail makes sense in this context.) The origin for loaf is less certain, but the OED gives it a sauntering connotation, which is different. As you allude, they tend to be modern synonyms for idleness. That's partly because the modern Dutch meaning for loiter eventually approaches that of loafing. But the word seems to have entered English usage prior to the transition from Middle to modern Dutch, meaning that it changed as well.

Of interest, the dissent in Johnson v. State, 202 So. 2d 852, 854–55 (Fla. 1967), explains that a local statute (Florida in this case) inherited two broad categories of vagrancy from earlier English law:

(1) able bodied beggars, common gamblers, drunkards, railers and brawlers, thieves, pilferers, traders in stolen property, lewd persons and keepers of gambling places, who are denounced as such regardless of their financial status, and (2) able bodied persons who are habitual idlers, loafers, "hoboes", who neglect their lawful business, if any, stroll and wander from place to place without lawful purpose or object and who are without means of support or reasonably continuous employment or regular income.

The archaic-language-enabled categorizations parallel the "loitering or strolling" distinction in other statutes, as in Headley v. Selkowitz, 171 So. 2d 368 (Fla. 1965). So it's possible that the loiter–loaf diction is just a linguistic holdover from earlier English law describing shaky people and saunterers.

What is the modern position?

In order to decide cases, courts have to spend time interpreting the language in various statutes. Modern case law on the topic stems from the Supreme Court's decision in Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156 (1972). There it doesn't draw a distinction between the terms. Other opinions, such as The City of Olathe v. R.E. Lauck, 156 Kan. 637, 640 (1943), affirmatively declare them synonyms: "the terms 'loiter,' 'loaf,' and 'idle' are used synonymously."

  • And @keltari, you're missing an 01101111 :)
    – Pat W.
    May 11, 2019 at 3:32

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