‘Runt of the Litter’: Definition, Meaning, and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on January 27, 2023

Did someone call you the ‘runt of the litter,’ and you don’t know what it means? What is the definition of this idiom, and where does it come from?

‘Runt of the litter’ is a phrase that can be used either literally or figuratively. Literally, it describes the smallest and weakest animal born at one time to another animal. Figuratively, it refers to the smallest or weakest person among a group of people and is frequently used to describe the smallest member of a group of siblings.

What Does 'Runt of the Litter' Mean?

‘Runt of the litter’ can be used literally to describe the smallest animal born in a litter. It can also be used to describe the animal in a litter that is considered the least likely to survive.

The word ‘runt’ means “an animal that is smaller than average.” It is particularly used to describe the smallest animal in a litter.

‘Litter’ has many definitions, but in this usage, it is defined as “the group of young animals born to an animal at one time.” So if your cat has kittens, the collective name for all of the kittens is the ‘litter.’

There are a number of disadvantages the ‘runt of the litter’ can face, including possible rejection by its mother or competition with siblings for food and the essential resources necessary for survival. In the wild, the ‘runt of the litter’ is less likely to survive infancy.

Figuratively, this phrase can also be used to describe the weakest and smallest person in a group. This idiom is frequently used to describe the smallest and weakest person in a group of siblings.

‘Runt of the Litter’ Vs. ‘Pick of the Litter’

The opposite of the ‘runt of the litter’ is the ‘pick of the litter.’

The ‘pick of the litter’ is a way to describe “the best one of a group.” It can be used literally in reference to a litter of animals, where the strongest and most desirable animal from a litter can be said to be the ‘pick of the litter.’

Cultural Examples of the ‘Runt of the Litter’

Just because an animal is literally the ‘runt of the litter’ or a person is figuratively considered the ‘runt of the litter,’ this doesn’t mean they can’t prevail in life. There are a number of examples in real life as well as in fictional stories about runts from various litters and their ability to succeed against the odds.

Some famous examples include:

  • Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web
  • Babe from the novel and film Babe
  • Clifford the Big Red Dog from the children’s book of the same name
  • Little Ann from Where the Red Furn Grows
  • The Big Friendly Giant from the Roald Dahl book The BFG

Where Does 'Runt of the Litter' Come From?

The word ‘runt’ dates back to 1500 to describe a “decayed or old tree stump,” but the origin of this usage is unknown. By the 1540s, the meaning of the word extended to a “small ox or cow,” particularly those with the characteristics of Highlands from Scotland or Wales. By the 1610s, the word was applied generally to both ignorant people and undersized animals.

It should be noted, however, that it is unknown whether the word ‘runt’ used to describe animals is actually related to the word ‘runt’ describing an old tree stump.

It is attested that the sense of ‘runt’ meaning “the smallest of a litter,” appeared as a Shropshire word around 1841, where it was particularly used to describe pigs. Shropshire is a historic county in the West Midlands region of England. In American English, the word ‘runt’ is more general and doesn’t apply only to pigs.

‘Litter’ is a word with several definitions, but the use of the word to describe the “offspring of an animal at one birth” appears to have appeared by the late 15th century. This comes from the word ‘litter’ meaning “a bed,” which dates back to 1300, and the extension of it in the early 15th century refers to “straw used for bedding.” The connection here is that a ‘litter’ of animals is born in one bed of litter.

Examples of 'Runt of the Litter' In Sentences

How would you use ‘runt of the litter’ in a sentence? Let’s look at some examples:

  • “When you look at those oxen, it’s not hard to see who was the runt of the litter.”
  • “Poor John is always in the shadow of his older brothers. He really is the runt of the litter.
  • “Sarah always seemed like the runt of the litter growing up, but she’s proven herself to be a fighter after all.”
  • “They told me not to pick the runt of the litter when selecting a puppy, but I completely fell in love with the look in this little guy’s eyes and the color of his fur.”
  • “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re really the runt of the litter at the office. You’re going to have to work extra hard if you want to compete for that promotion.”
  •  “Even though I’m not the youngest in my family, I’ve always felt like the runt of the litter.
  • “You aren’t the runt of the litter here because you are less capable than everyone else, but because you’re much more inclined to waste time and cut corners.”

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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