Definitions

from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition.

  • noun An animal, such as a vulture or housefly, that feeds on dead or decaying matter.
  • noun One that scavenges, as a person who searches through refuse for useful items.
  • noun Chemistry A substance added to a mixture to remove or inactivate impurities.

from The Century Dictionary.

  • noun An officer whose duty it was to take custom upon the inspection of imported goods, and later also to see that the streets were kept clean. Also scavager.
  • noun Hence A person whose employment is to clean the streets, etc., of a city or the like, by scraping or sweeping together and carrying off the filth.
  • noun In cotton-spinning, a child employed to collect the loose cotton lying about the floor or machinery.
  • noun In entomology, a scavenger-beetle.

from the GNU version of the Collaborative International Dictionary of English.

  • noun A person whose employment is to clean the streets of a city, by scraping or sweeping, and carrying off the filth. The name is also applied to any animal which devours refuse, carrion, or anything injurious to health.
  • noun (Zoöl.) any beetle which feeds on decaying substances, as the carrion beetle.
  • noun (Zoöl.) any crab which feeds on dead animals, as the spider crab.
  • noun an instrument of torture invented by Sir W. Skevington, which so compressed the body as to force the blood to flow from the nostrils, and sometimes from the hands and feet.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.

  • noun obsolete A street sweeper.
  • noun Someone who scavenges, especially one who searches through rubbish for food or useful things.
  • noun An animal that feeds on decaying matter such as carrion.
  • noun chemistry A substance used to remove impurities from the air or from a solution.

from WordNet 3.0 Copyright 2006 by Princeton University. All rights reserved.

  • noun any animal that feeds on refuse and other decaying organic matter
  • noun a chemical agent that is added to a chemical mixture to counteract the effects of impurities
  • noun someone who collects things that have been discarded by others

Etymologies

from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

[Alteration of Middle English scauager, schavager, official charged with street maintenance, from Anglo-Norman scawager, toll collector, from scawage, a tax on the goods of foreign merchants, from Flemish scauwen, to look at, show.]

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

From Middle English scavager, from Old French scawageour ("one who had to do with scavage, inspector, tax collector"), from Old French *scawage, *scavage, escavage, escauwage ("scavage"), alteration of escauvinghe (compare also Medieval Latin scewinga, sceawinga), from Middle English schewing ("inspection, examination"), from Old English scēawung ("reconnoitering, surveying, inspection, examination, scrutiny"), equivalent to showing.

Examples

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  • Variants survive today in slum-ridden megacities like Cairo, Mumbai, and Buenos Aires, but the epitome was early nineteenth-century London, where a scavenger army of tens of thousands of impoverished men, women, and children, each with a defined specialty, scavenged the dregs of the metropolis. There were toshers in the sewers and mudlarks on the riverbanks, rag-pickers atop rubbish heaps and bone-pickers behind kitchens. "Pure-finders" scooped up dog manure for tanneries, dustmen collected ash and night-soil men emptied cesspools. . . . Teeming cities like London and Paris could not have functioned without the ad hoc scavenging system, but the cost was very high. The scavengers worked in filth, and as the investigations of William Farr and John Snow demonstrated, filthy conditions were crucial in the spread of communicable disease.
    Dan Fagin, Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation (New York: Bantam Books, 2014), p. 85

    February 7, 2016