Scavenger works as both (1) a noun referring to one who collects discarded or unused items, and (2) a verb meaning to collect discarded or unused items. In today’s English, however, the verb usually gives way to the shorter scavenge, which began as a backformation from scavenger but is now a fully accepted form.
Scavenger has several senses in addition to the general ones. Most commonly, it refers to animals that feed on dead things or decaying organic matter. Hyenas and vultures, for instance, are well known for this behavior. Scavenger was also once a job title for street-cleaners, and it has specialized uses in biological chemistry and automotive engineering. Scavenger doubles as a verb corresponding to each of these senses, but, as with the more general sense, the verb usually gives way to scavenge.
Scavenge is sometimes used as a synonym of forage. Instead of collecting discarded items, one might scavenge for things that are simply useful. For example, on a camping trip one might scavenge around for firewood or edible plants.
Origins and development
Scavenger descends from scavager, which took several spellings in early use during the 15th and 16th centuries. Scavager comes from the Anglo-French scawager, which was used in senses relating to the collection of tolls on sold goods.1 Scavager in English initially referred to someone whose job it was to collect tolls on goods, but the job description was later augmented to include street cleaning.2 By the 19th century this was the primary role of the job, and scavengers—precursors to today’s garbage workers—were employed by many city governments in the U.K. and the U.S. From this we get the modern senses having to do with the collecting of discarded items.
Scavager first gained an n in the 16th century, possibly due to the influence of other ger-ending words like passenger, harbinger, and messenger, and by the 17th century scavenger, with the n, was the more common form by a large margin.
According to the OED, scavenger first developed its verb sense in the early 19th century, but its heyday was short-lived, as scavenge came about at roughly the same time.3 They vied for ascendancy through much of that century, but by the 1910s scavenge was widely accepted, and scavenger as a verb soon faded from use (though it appears from time to time even to this day).
Nuisances and abominations of all sorts are without scruple committed to the street at any hour of the day or night, to await the morning visit of the scavenger to remove them. [American Magazine of Useful Knowledge (1836)]
The cheapness with which pork is fattened, and the usefulness of the hog as a scavenger, make it one of the most profitable animals for the Chinese to rear. [The Middle Kingdom, Samuel Wells Williams (1859)]
The English quarter is lighted by electricity. Scavengers sweep the roads at stated times and cart away all dirt and rubbish. [The Land of the Date, C.M. Cursetjee (1918)]
The condition is aggravated by the fact that in the dry-sump system the scavenger pump has a high capacity and can remove oil faster than it flows in. [Significance of ASTM Tests for Petroleum Products, American Society for Testing Materials (1956)]
The new image of early Stone Age ancestors as systematic hunters of large animals, rather than mere scavengers of meat, emerged last week. [New York Times (1997)]
Carnosine has been proved to play a number of biological functions, including
antioxidant activity, as a free radical scavenger. [Journal of Applied Science (2013)]
A properly laid pavement, constructed of hard wood, with close joints and pitch grounded, and kept in good repair and well scavenged and cleansed, may be safely regarded as a sanitary pavement. [The Construction of Roads and Streets, William Henry Maxwell (1899)]
Not even the invasion of the junk dealers who swarmed out of the woodwork to scavenge among the refuse of tragedy could be helped. [Flying Magazine (1960)]
Kids in the Ugandan town of Masindi kludged together this awesome homebrew radio, scavenging parts from a broken set and improvising the speaker and power supply. [Boing Boing (2010)]
1. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology ↩
2. Scavenger (n) in the OED ↩
3. Scavenger (v) in the OED ↩