Drift: to move smoothly or easily in a way that is not planned or guided

Wander: to move around or go to different places usually without having a particular purpose or direction

(From Merriam Webster Learner’s Dictionary)

Is there any difference between these two words? Are they completely interchangeable in the following context(drifted about England)?

“When economic depression hit the woolen trade in the late 1500s, thousands of footloose farmers took to the roads. They drifted about England, chronically unemployed, often ending up as beggars and paupers in cities like Bristol and London.”

From “The American Pageant” by Thomas A. Bailey

2 Answers 2


Drift = to be carried along by currents of water or air, or by the force of circumstances (Dictionary.com).

Wander = to go aimlessly, indirectly, or casually (Dictionary.com)

Drifted means carried away when you do not fully control the situation. "The farmers drifted about England" means they were dependent on the job availability, so they "had to" go where the work was.

Wander means to go around without a specific purpose but deliberately and consciously.

  • 6
    Talking about people, A 'Drifter' might go where there is work, or where they can get a lift (by circumstance). A Wanderer however, chooses to go wherever their fancy takes them (by own choice).
    – Smock
    Commented Jun 13, 2019 at 15:23

Even though your dictionary doesn’t appear to make the distinction, I have never heard drift used in the sense of self-directed, meaning self-controlled movement. That is why it is used in connection with ocean currents. The current moves you without your input.

Drift is also used in the sense of drifting off of ones intended course. Again, the movement is not self-directed. It is unintentional movement.

Wander on the other hand is self-directed movement even though an intended destination may be absent. For example, one can wander in search of an intended goal like finding food and water.

A related term which actually originates from the name of a river in Turkey is meander.

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