The Grammarphobia Blog

Word-mongering

Q: What’s up with the all-purpose term “monger”? A fishmonger sells fish, a warmonger stirs up war, a gossipmonger indulges in gossip, a whoremonger patronizes prostitutes. If one were simply to “mong,” what would one be doing?

A: The word “monger” is a favorite of ours, so we’re glad to have an excuse for writing about it.

In modern times, it can refer to a dealer in some commodity (an “ironmonger,” for example), a person who engages in something undesirable (a “scandalmonger”), or one who stirs up something disreputable (a “warmonger”).

The word is ancient, dating back to early Old English. It has roots in the Latin mongo (a dealer or trader), and has cousins in Old Saxon, Old Icelandic, and other Germanic sources.

Its original meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was “merchant, trader, dealer, or trafficker (freq. of a specified commodity).”

So, for example, a fish seller might have been called “a monger of fish.”

From about the 16th century, the OED says, “monger” also acquired a derogatory meaning: “a person engaged in a petty or disreputable trade or traffic.”

In fact, in the 17th and 18th centuries “monger” was frequently short for “whoremonger,” one who buys the services of whores. So the “monger” wasn’t always the one doing the selling!

But a “monger” is usually peddling something, and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says a “whoremonger” is one who either buys or sells the services of a prostitute.

The OED says the term by itself is “sometimes short for an established compound such as cheesemonger … where the context makes this clear.” 

Citations for the use of “monger” alone extend well into the 20th century.

In a couple of examples from British journalism, the OED cites references to “fruit one knew from the monger’s stall” (1925), and to “bulletin boards as mongers of pornography and pirate software” (1995).

We see “monger” more frequently, however, as part of a compound, like “ironmonger,” which has been around since the 14th century.

Some other examples in the OED include “fishmonger,” a 15th-century coinage, and “costermonger,” a 16th-century word for a fruit seller (from “costard,” an old word for an apple).

Modern usages (often hyphenated) are contemptuous for the most part: “rumor-monger,” “scandal-monger,” “fashion-monger,” “scare-monger,” “fad-monger,” and so on.

These mongers are peddlers or distributors or promoters of something, though they may not always do it for money.

You asked what one would be doing if one were simply to mong. Well, there is such a verb, and we’ve had it since Anglo-Saxon days.

The verb “mong,” according to the OED, means to barter or trade in something, chiefly to trade or spread gossip, rumors, and so on.

We don’t see it much these days, and when we do, it’s often used in a comical way, as in this 1949 example from Ogden Nash: “These editorial scandalmongers have to mong scandal.”

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