Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Curmudgeon


Curmudgeon

Big thanks to Christine Ahern of View from an Independent Bookstore, who asked three weeks ago about the word curmudgeon. Her request inspired this look into the various ways we refer to cranky, old-fashioned people.

Curmudgeon entered the English language in the 1570s, & nobody really knows where it came from. Some have posited that the first syllable may come from the word cur, meaning a dog of either vicious or cowardly demeanor, combined with the Gaelic word, muigean, meaning disagreeable person. Sadly, no data supports this. Whether we know its parentage or not, the word curmudgeon is marvelously descriptive. Those of you who appreciate vicious, nasty, or biting quotes should definitely consider The Portable Curmudgeon, by Jon Winokur, which features quotes from notable curmudgeons like HL Menken, WC Fields, Dorothy Parker, Fran Lebowitz, Oscar Levant & others.

More recently, the term geezer has been the word of choice to refer to cranky, old-fashioned people. Geezer entered English in 1885 from the Cockney term guiser, which meant a silent, muttering, or grumbling person.

In the 1580s, the term malcontent entered the language from French. Though the word has no association with old-fashionedness, it did refer (& still does) to a rebellious or complaining person and seems to live in the same grumpworthy category.

A killjoyanother term with no age-association - is a person who kills joy. This word came to English in 1772, simply by connecting two words that were already in use.

Though the world’s most famous (or infamous) misanthrope was a curmudgeonly chap featured in Moliere’s play, The Misanthrope, the word itself has no direct connection to old ways or old age. It simply means one who hates people (landing it in my generally grumpworthy category). Misanthrope came to the language in the 1560s from Greek.

In 1780 the Scots loaned English their word foggie, which we English–speakers have held onto ever since as the word fogey. The original Scottish word referred to old veterans or pensioners & may or may not have an association with various root terms for moss, old-fashioned, or bloatedness.

Codger entered the language in 1756,most likely coming from cadger, which means beggar. Cadger’s root, cadge, is of unknown origin.

Americans added fuddy-duddy to English in 1871. Nobody is quite certain of its roots. It meant then – as it does now – old fashioned.

Another American term most of us have lost came from the Carolinas in the 1860s. The term is mossback, & it meant conservative, reactionary, & old fashioned, which referred directly to southerners who refused to join the Confederate army, & instead of joining the cause, hid in the woods “till moss grew on their backs.” Given todays’ political world, isn’t it fascinating that 150 years ago, those who refused to go to war were perceived as conservative?

In recognition of the folks in a family most likely to be old-fashioned, please use the comments section to share notable family names for grandparents & such. Some of my favorites from my family include Gommee, Other Dad, Moof, & Muddee (a shortening of Mother Dear).


My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Wordnik & Etymonline.

5 comments:

  1. I knew (or could guess at) the origins of "malcontent" and "misanthrope", but everything else was new. "Mossback" is my new favorite!

    For my father's side, New Hampshireans of French Canadian extract, we called my grandparents "Pepere and Memere". For my mother's side, Pensacola Floridans, we went with "Pawpaw and Grandma."
    But what they love to trot out for visitors is the time I called my grandmother "fat." (I was five!!)

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  2. I love "mossback" too! And I think my favorite word in the whole piece is your own "grumpworthy." As I progress into geezerdom, I find more and more things are grumpworthy.

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  3. Anne & Rachel,
    Thanks for joining me in my wordly foolishness. Rachel, Pepere & Memere remind me that I forgot to mention what we called my parents, Muz & Puz. And yes, I hadn't previously run into mossback, but it's mahvelous.

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  4. My very German family called our grandparents by their LAST names. As an adult I have thought about how cold that really was! I am quite familiar with Mossback but...don't remember why...geezerdom setting in! Thanks for the info about curmudgeon. Love that word!

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    1. Hey Christine,
      Your German family might be something like the Victorian Brits that made up one side of our family (& who curiously landed in Texas). The name "Muddee" was an outgrowth of that Victorianism -- the children were supposed to call her "Mother Dear."

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