The Grammarphobia Blog

Trough luck

Q: In Sunday school, we were told that Jesus was born in a manger, which my dictionary defines as a feed trough. Am I right to assume that “manger” is a corruption of the French manger, meaning to eat? Does anybody still use “manger” for a feed trough? Or was the word created so we wouldn’t have to sing, “Away in a feed trough”?

A: You’re on the right track, but it’s a twisty one that goes back many hundreds of years.

Our noun “manger” came into English in the 1300s from the Anglo-Norman mangure, which in turn came from the Old French maingeure. All these mean the same thing: a long open box or trough for feeding cattle or horses.

The source of them all, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the Old French verb mangier (“eat”), ultimately derived from the Latin manducare (“chew”). The modern French words are mangeoire for “manger” and manger for “eat.”

In the 15th and 16th centuries, there was a related verb in English for chowing down, “maunge,” but it’s gone by the wayside, replaced by “eat.”

The word “eat,” by the way, is ancient. It has old Germanic roots that go back many, many centuries, long before it first entered English in the year 825.

In preferring “eat” over “maunge,” speakers of English chose an old Anglo-Saxonism over a Latinate word.

But there are echoes of the old word “maunge” around today: in the British pudding “blancmange” (“white food”), in the disease “mange” (which is an eating-away of the skin), and in the related adjective “mangy.”

In fact, the OED says the word “munch” (and consequently, I guess, “munchies”) may have been influenced by the Old French word for eating.

And, yes, the term “manger” is still used for a feed trough, as in this excerpt from a Jan. 3, 1986, article in the British magazine Farmers Weekly: “We must do something about the troughing, both to improve intake by having feed constantly in the manger, and to cut down labour.”

In case you’re wondering about the expression “dog-in-a-manger,” the OED defines it this way: “A churlish person who will neither use something himself nor let another use it; in allusion to the fable of the dog that stationed himself in a manger and would not let the ox or horse eat the hay.”

With that, I’m off to put on the feed bag.

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