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Origin of drift

First recorded in 1250–1300; Middle English drift, noun derivative of the Old English verb drīfan drive; cognate with Dutch drift “herd, flock,” German Trift “herd, pasturage, road to pasture”

synonym study for drift

7. See tendency.


drift·ing·ly, adverbdriftless, adjectivedrift·less·ness, nounun·drift·ing, adjective
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What does drift mean?

To drift is to be carried along by water or air currents, the way a rubber duck might drift around in a tub.

To drift is also to carry something along, as an air current drifts dead leaves through the air.

This force of motion is also called a drift, as in The ocean drift carried my boogie board out to sea!

Related to this, drift can also mean to wander aimlessly. This sense can be used literally, as when you walk around a theme park with no specific destination in mind. It can also be used figuratively, as when you’re telling a friend a story about your cat and you drift into an unrelated story about your favorite video game. When we’re falling asleep slowly, we sometimes say we’re drifting off to sleep.

Drift can also refer to a purpose or meaning. As your science teacher explains a new concept, you might understand a little of it, getting the drift of it, but not yet understand all of what they’re talking about.

Example: We saw an empty raft drifting down the river.

Where does drift come from?

The first records of the term drift come from the late 1200s. It ultimately comes from the Old English drīfan meaning “to drive.” Drift might be called “a driving force” because it moves things forward.

Drift is closely related to nautical travel and the waters. In boat travel, for example, drift refers to the movement of a ship, its speed, the distance of a rope, the distance of cargo, and measurements of the ship itself. This is because the currents of the water and the wind cause things to float and drift along the water.

Did you know … ?

What are some other forms related to drift?

  • drifter (noun)
  • driftingly (adverb)
  • driftless (adjective)
  • undrifting (adjective)

What are some synonyms for drift?

What are some words that share a root or word element with drift

What are some words that often get used in discussing drift?

How is drift used in real life?

Drift is a common word with many senses, all of which relate to something moving slowly or gently.

Try using drift!

Which of the following is NOT a synonym for drift?

A. float
B. halt
C. wander
D. flit

How to use drift in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for drift

/ (drɪft) /

verb (mainly intr)

Derived forms of drift

drifty, adjective

Word Origin for drift

C13: from Old Norse: snowdrift; related to Old High German trift pasturage
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Other Idioms and Phrases with drift


see get the drift.

The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.