The Grammarphobia Blog

Miser, miserly, and miserable

Q: I assume that “miser” and “miserly” are relations of “miserable,” but how exactly are they related?

A: All three are ultimately derived from miser, a Latin adjective meaning wretched or unfortunate.

The use of the “adjective in the sense ‘miserly’ is not recorded in Latin, but may have existed,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In fact, the OED says, the Romans sometimes used miser in the sense of “wretched in one’s social or financial circumstances.” Could those “financial circumstances” have sometimes been “miserly”?

The words “miserable” and “miser” both showed up in English around the same time in the 15th century.

The OED’s earliest example of “miserable,” meaning living in a wretched condition, is from a poem by Thomas Hoccleve written around 1422: “To helle goon tho soules miserable.”

However, the dictionary has a question mark in front of the Hoccleve citation, indicating that it’s not sure of the exact meaning of “miserable” here.

The OED’s first definite example—written sometime in the 1400s and cited in Liber Pluscardensis, a history of Scotland—refers to the “mynd of miserabile humanite.”

When “miser” first showed up in English, according to Oxford, it was as an adjective meaning miserly or parsimonious, but that sense of the word is primarily heard now in Scottish.

The dictionary’s first example, also from the 1400s, is a citation in the Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen, a German literary and linguistic journal:

“Of his plentevous bloode he was not misser, / For he sufferd his manhod to be slayne.”

When “miser” showed up as a noun in the 16th century, it referred to “a miserable or wretched person,” but that sense is now obsolete, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example is from Nicholas Udall’s 1542 translation of Apophthegmes of Erasmus: “So did the philosophier call hym a miser, that had no qualitee aboue the commen rate of manne.”

It wasn’t until the late 16th or early 17th century that the noun took on its modern meaning of someone who hoards his wealth or is stingy.

The earliest Oxford example is from Shakespeare’s Henry V. In the play, written around 1600, the King of France’s son says stinting on defense “Doth like a Miser spoyle his Coat, with scanting / A little Cloth.”

Finally, the adjective “miserly” meant stingy and parsimonious from the moment it first showed up in print, according to the dictionary’s citations.

The OED’s earliest example is from Christ’s Teares Ouer Ierusalem, a 1593 work by the Elizabethan pamphleteer Thomas Nashe:

”If there were any that had dudgen-olde coughing miserly Fathers they could not endure.”

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