The Grammarphobia Blog

Is he moaning or complaining?

Q: I’ve read that the British make a useful distinction between complaining and moaning. A Brit complains to a shopkeeper about the prices, but he later moans to his wife about them. My wife says I’m constantly complaining. If she were British, she’d say I’m constantly moaning. I rarely complain. My question is this: Should I complain to my wife about her English?

A: We’re going to take this as a serious question, though we aren’t convinced that people in the US and UK treat complaining and moaning very differently.

Here, for example, is an example from the BBC News: “British consumers have kept up their reputation as a nation of moaners, making more complaints than before in the past year.”

So should you complain to your wife about her use of “complain” instead of “moan”? No, you have no complaint.

Your wife isn’t out of line in saying you’re constantly complaining. Of course, she could also say you’re constantly moaning, because the words “moan” and “complain” often have similar meanings. 

The verb “complain” has been in English since the 1300s, borrowed from the French complaindre, which in turn came from the late Latin complangere.

The Latin word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is made up of the prefix com (an intensifier) plus the verb plangere (“to lament, bewail, orig. to strike, beat, beat the breast or head in sign of grief”).

One meaning of “complain” in English, the OED says, is “to give expression to sorrow; to make moan, lament.” Another is “to give expression to feelings of ill-usage, dissatisfaction, or discontent; to murmur, grumble.” And yet another is “to emit a mournful sound.”

If that doesn’t include moaning, we don’t know what does!

As for the verb “moan,” it has roots that go back to an obsolete word in early Old English, mean.

It showed up in its current form in the 1300s, when the word meant “to complain, lament.” The modern meaning, “make a mournful sound,” wasn’t recorded until the 1700s, long after “moan” first came into use. 

However, the original sense of “moan” lives on. A current meaning, which for some reason the OED labels as “colloquial” (better fit for speech than for written English), is “to grumble or complain, typically about something trivial.”

American dictionaries, however, regard this use of “moan” as standard English, whether or not the complaint is trivial.

Both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) include “to complain, lament” among their definitions.

American Heritage gives these examples: “an old man who still moans about his misspent youth”; and “She moaned her misfortunes to anyone who would listen.” 

One more point. As far as we can tell, to complain is to complain is to complain – no matter who is the recipient of the complaint.

Most people would probably say that they “complain,” not “moan,” to a manufacturer or retailer about a product.

But the follow-up kvetching and griping to one’s spouse can reasonably be described as either “complaining” or “moaning.”

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