The Samuel Johnson notes: A notorious ‘curmudgeon’

I write a column on language for rare-books journal The Time Traveller, in which Samuel Johnson and his Dictionary have a recurring role. The first article looked at the semantically spectacular history of nice; the second, posted below, is on the etymology of curmudgeon and an infamous lexicographic flub.

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A Notorious ‘Curmudgeon’

In issue 1 of The Time Traveller I described the radical changes the word nice has undergone, and how this prompted resistance and criticism. Because linguistic change is inevitable, constant, and disorienting, language usage attracts its fair share of curmudgeons. It’s a marvellous word, curmudgeon: the kind that Dickens might have made into an affectionately mocking surname. Yet despite its familiarity and popularity, it hides a mystery and a certain notoriety.

We begin, as before, with Samuel Johnson, critic, occasional curmudgeon, and lexicographer extraordinaire. In his Dictionary he defined curmudgeon as ‘an avaricious churlish fellow; a miser; a niggard; a churl; a griper’. Several things stand out about this sequence.

Avaricious, miser, and niggard all signify meanness or greed (and covetous appears in the entry for curmudgeonly), but this sense is now rare. The use of niggard itself has also plummeted, not least because of its phonetic similarity to a racial slur; though there is no etymological connection, public use of niggard (or niggardly) has led to lawsuits and sackings. Griper, meanwhile, is a nice illustration of sound symbolism, whereby the consonant cluster gr- evokes complaint or surliness: witness gripe, Grinch, groan, grouch, grouse, growl, gruff, grumble, grumpy, grunt, and obsolete words such as grumme, gruntle, grutch, and aggrudge.

Johnson could be a little loose with his etymologies, not averse to educated guesses dressed as fact. He decided, based on a suggestion from ‘an unknown correspondent’, that curmudgeon was ‘a vitious manner of pronouncing cœur méchant’, which translates from French as ‘bad or evil heart’ (vitious is an old spelling of vicious, then meaning ‘defective, corrupt’). This improbable origin story would soon lead to minor infamy in the world of dictionary-making.

Baptist minister John Ash (c.1724–79) drew liberally on Johnson’s work for his own New and Complete Dictionary of the English Language and made an absolute hames of the entry for curmudgeon. Wildly misinterpreting Johnson’s questionable etymology, he betrayed his own lack of both research and French and asserted that curmudgeon came from ‘coeur, unknown, and méchant, correspondent’. Be grateful that dictionaries nowadays are generally more reliable.

The truth is, no one knows where curmudgeon came from, and the variety of its early spellings (cormogeon, cormoggian, curmudgin, curre-megient, etc.) only adds to the speculative possibilities. Scottish curmurring means a low growling or grumbling sound, but lacks a definite line to curmudgeon. Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary includes curmullyit: someone with ‘a very dark complexion and ill-favoured countenance’.

A cornmudgin is a ‘mudgin’ (thief or hoarder) of grain, stockpiling it to push up the price – but this may be just a pun, and anyway it postdates curmudgeon. A curmudgin steals curs (dogs), but again the link to curmudgeon is not clear. Cur may play a part, since it corresponds to various old Germanic words for ‘growl’. But etymologist Anatoly Liberman opts for car-, which could serve as an intensifying prefix, plus the Gaelic word muigean ‘churlish, disagreeable person’.

Which of these (if any) is true is open to debate. But you can safely assume curmudgeon is not from the French for unknown correspondent.

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The Time Traveller is a new Irish magazine about books, art, education, and more, published in county Cork by The Time Traveller’s Bookshop. My column for it is reproduced on Sentence first with the editor’s kind permission. Incidentally, I visited Dr Johnson’s old house in Gough Square recently: I’ll pick up that thread in a future post.

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