November 29, 2000
John Curry wrote:
I would like to know the origin/derivation of the word curmudgeon. It's one of my favorite words, and I even have it spelled phonetically on my vanity plate. Two questions specifically: 1) Is it related to the epithet "cur" at the beginning of the word, and 2) Does it always refer to older men?
Curmudgeon is one of those words for which dictionaries say "origin unknown," but there have been a number of theories over the centuries, and we'll take a look at some of them.
Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary defines curmudgeon as 'a bad-tempered, difficult, cantankerous person'. It is usually applied to a man, especially an older man, but that doesn't seem to be inherent in the word. The earliest citations contain the sense of 'avaricious', but that has now been lost.
According to the OED, the first written evidence of curmudgeon is in Richard Stanyhurst's Description of Ireland, published in Holinshed's Chronicles in 1577: "Such a clownish Curmudgen." Stanyhurst was Irish, but I haven't found any suggestions that our word might have an Irish origin.
In 1600, Philemon Holland translated Livy's History of Rome and rendered the Latin word "frumentarius" ('corn dealer') with the word cornmudgin. That led, for a while, to the supposition that the etymology was corn plus either Old French muchier or mucier, 'to hide', or Middle English muchen or michen, 'to steal'. In other words, a curmudgeon was one who hoarded grain. This explanation appeared in various etymological dictionaries until the early part of the 20th century. At that point, someone realized that the first appearance of the word predated Holland's use of it in 1600 by about a quarter century, and that Holland was making a play on words.
If you look up curmudgeon in Samuel Johnson's 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, you will find the following in parentheses before the definition: "It is a vitious manner of pronouncing coeur mechant, Fr. an unknown correspondent." Coeur means 'heart', and mechant means 'bad'. Dr. Johnson had apparently lost track of who had given him this etymology, and the "Fr." stands for 'from'. However, a man named John Ash published a New and Complete Dictionary of the English Language in 1775 in which he took Dr. Johnson's "Fr." to mean 'French' and, knowing no French, provided the etymology "from Fr. coeur 'unknown', mechant 'correspondent'." An embarrassing lexicographical moment. Whoever Johnson's "unknown correspondent" was, there is no evidence to support 'bad heart' as a source for curmudgeon.
Without having any real evidence, I think it's likely that curmudgeon has some connection with cur, which came into English early in the 12th century and is related to Germanic verbs meaning 'to growl'. As for the second part of the word, the Century Dictionary, published in 1889, suggests as a possible source either of two Scottish words, mudgeon, 'grimace', or murgeon 'mock or grumble'.
I'm glad to hear that you are carrying on the curmudgeonly tradition. You probably know about Harold L. Ickes, who was secretary of the interior under FDR. He was famous for his outspoken bluntness and in 1943 published his Autobiography of a Curmudgeon. Alas, when I did a Nexis search for the word, I turned up a lot of articles about How the Grinch Stole Christmas as well as some mentions of other fictional characters. It seems that genuine curmudgeons are in short supply among our current public figures.
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