Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Daily Hump: Curmudgeon

Most, if not all, WordHumper readers know the definition of curmudgeon. It's used fairly often in everyday conversation to mean an ill-tempered miser, a niggard. I first came across the word in 1992 as it was the title of a track on the b-side of Nirvana's Lithium single. I remember thinking it was a strange word then, but the etymology is what truly makes curmudgeon peculiar.

I really cannot explain the theory of curmudgeon's etymology better than the OED, so I'll just quote them on this one.
The occurrence in Holland's Livy, 1600, of CORNMUDGIN (q.v.) has led to a suggestion that this was the original form, with the meaning ‘concealer or hoarder of corn’, mudgin being associated with ME. much-en, mich-en to pilfer, steal, or muchier, Norman form of OF. mucier, musser to conceal, hide away. But examination of the evidence shows that curmudgeon was in use a quarter of a century before Holland's date, and that cornmudgin is apparently merely a nonce-word of Holland's, a play upon corn and curmudgeon. The suggestion that the first syllable is cur, the dog, is perhaps worthy of note; but that of Dr. Johnson's ‘unknown correspondent’, c{oe}ur méchant for F. méchant c{oe}ur, ‘evil or malicious heart’, is noticeable only as an ingenious specimen of pre-scientific ‘etymology’, and as having been retailed by Ash in the form, ‘from the French c{oe}ur unknown, and mechant a correspondent’!
Personally, I always assumed the etymology had something to do with the Latin cur meaning 'why'. And there's an East Anglian word murgeon that originally had the meaning of dirt (but now tends to mean manure). I have no idea how curmudgeon would come to mean miser from 'why dirt', but I'm sure we'll come across stranger less obvious etymologies as we continue our wordhump odyssey. Anyway, we should probably just ignore my theory. On a sidenote, I think the idea of a cornmudgin is hilarious and I intend on adopting that word into my everyday vocabulary.

curmudgeon [OED]
cornmudgin [OED]
murgeon [OED]

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:: posted by David, 8:17 AM


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