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The “cur” in “curmudgeon”

Q: What is the origin of the word “curmudgeon”?

A: Nobody knows, but that hasn’t stopped a lot of word detectives from speculating about it. And some of the speculations are less speculative than others. Here’s the story.

When the word “curmudgeon” first showed up in English in the late 1500s, it referred to a grasping, avaricious man.

But the online Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged describes that sense as archaic, and it says the word now means “a crusty, ill-tempered, or difficult and often elderly person.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of the usage (spelled “curmudgen”) is from the Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577), a history of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

But let’s skip ahead to a more colorful example from Christ’s Tears Over Jerusalem, a 1593 pamphlet written by the playwright Thomas Nashe: “Our English Cormogeons, they haue breasts, but giue no suck.”

Although Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged says the origin of “curmudgeon” is unknown, the OED discusses several theories about the word’s etymology.

The appearance of the word “cornmudgin” in Philemon Holland’s 1600 translation of the works of Livy, Oxford says, has led to suggestions that the term originally referred to someone who hides or hoards corn (that is, grain).

The “-mudgin” part of “cornmudgin,” according to this theory, was derived from a Middle English term meaning to steal or an Old French term meaning to conceal or hide away.

The OED reminds us, however, that “curmudgen,” the “corn”-less version of the word in Holinshed’s Chronicles, “was in use a quarter of a century before Holland’s date.”

The dictionary suspects “that cornmudgin is apparently merely a nonce-word of Holland’s, a play upon corn and curmudgeon.” (A nonce word is one used for the nonce—that is, for a specific occasion.)

The OED also debunks Samuel Johnson’s suggestion that “curmudgeon” may be an English corruption of the French phrase cœur méchant , or malicious heart. (In his 1755 dictionary, Johnson attributes the idea to “an unknown correspondent.”)

The Oxford editors are more open to the theory that the first syllable of “curmudgeon” may reflect the word “cur,” which can refer to a despicable or cowardly person as well as a vicious or undesirable dog.  

“The suggestion that the first syllable is cur, the dog, is perhaps worthy of note,” the dictionary says.

In case you’re curious, English borrowed the word “cur” in the 1200s from other Germanic languages where similar terms meant to growl, snarl, or grumble.

“The primary sense appears thus to have been ‘growling or snarling beast,’ ” the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest citation, from the Ancrene Riwle (circa 1225), an anonymous guide for monastic women, uses “cur” in a compound noun: “Þe dogge of helle … þefule cur dogge.” Modern English: “The dog of hell … the foul cur dog.”

And, finally, here’s a figurative example, from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1600), in which “cur” is used to refer to a man: “Out dog, out curre: thou driu’st me past the bounds / Of maidens patience.”

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