The grumbling heart of ‘curmudgeon’

Posted by on November 25, 2013

© Digital Vision / Getty ImagesEveryone knows a curmudgeon or two, and some of us would consider ourselves one, at least part-time. Defined in Macmillan Dictionary as ‘someone who gets annoyed easily, especially an old person’, the word crops up regularly in relation to language usage. We see a word or phrase used sloppily, or inept punctuation from someone who should know better, and it rouses our inner (and sometimes outer) curmudgeon.

It’s a fine word, curmudgeon, a pleasing way to say we are not pleased. It’s often associated with middle-aged or older men – Waldorf and Statler are classic examples – but this is not a prerequisite. For editorial and pedantic types of all ages, curmudgeonry can be a badge of pride – a righteous grumpiness marking the pursuit of perfection, or as close to it as possible in the circumstances.

The word is also something of a mystery. Despite its colourful past, we don’t know where it came from, and an array of early spellings – including curmudgin, cormogeon, cormoggian, and curre-megient – merely invites further speculation. Its earliest cited appearance is in the late sixteenth-century Chronicles by Holinshed, which has an essay with the line: ‘The feare of his danger mooued hir to annere to such a clownish curmudgen.’

Various origins have been proposed. Scotland has curmurring, a low growling or grumbling sound, but there’s no definite connection to curmudgeon. Cornmudgin is an old term for a ‘mudgin’ (thief or hoarder) of corn – someone who stashes it to push the price up. But this word postdates curmudgeon, and is probably just a pun. Similarly, a curmudgin steals dogs, but again there’s no strong evidence tying it to curmudgeon. Cur may play a part, though, since it means (or used to mean) grumbling in several Germanic languages.

In his famous dictionary, Samuel Johnson was a little loose with some etymologies, and curmudgeon’s was one such. Unable to establish for certain where it had come from, he declared it French, calling it a ‘vitious [vicious] manner of pronouncing coeur méchant, Fr. [From] an unknown correspondent’. Coeur méchant’  translates as ‘bad or malicious heart’.

This proved notorious through the work of a later lexicographer, the Baptist minister John Ash. In his New and Complete Dictionary of the English Language (1775–95) Ash’s entry for curmudgeon didn’t just repeat Johnson’s dubious etymology, but misinterpreted it utterly, laying bare his less-than-rigorous research. He said it came from the French ‘coeur, unknown, and méchant, correspondent’. Imagine the curmudgeonly outbursts that followed.

Comments (1)
  • […] At Lingua Franca, Geoffrey Pullum looked at whether and when, and Anne Curzan considered the freshperson problem. At Macmillan Dictionary blog, Michael Rundell discussed the language of conspiracy and Stan Carey peered into the grumbling heart of the curmudgeon. […]

    Posted by Language Blog Roundup: Nelson Mandela, all caps, dalek | Wordnik on 6th December, 2013
Leave a Comment
* Required Fields Notify me of follow-up comments via email