Q: Many of the recent articles about John McCain have described the late senator as “cantankerous,” which leads me to ask you where this odd-looking word comes from.
A: When the word first appeared in writing in the early 1700s, it was described as a term in the Kentish dialect spoken in southeast England. In the late 1700s, it was said to be a term in the Wiltshire dialect in southwest England.
The Oxford English Dictionary says the dialectal usage may have evolved from the Middle English contak or conteke (quarreling) and contekour or conteckour (a quarrelsome person)—perhaps influenced by a word like “rancorous.”
The OED defines “cantankerous” as “showing an ill-natured disposition; ill-conditioned and quarrelsome, perverse, cross-grained.”
The dictionary’s earliest citation is from An Alphabet of Kenticisms (1736), by the antiquarian Samuel Pegge: “Contancrous, peevish, perverse, prone to quarrelling.”
The next Oxford example is from She Stoops to Conquer, a 1773 comedy by Oliver Goldsmith: “There’s not a more bitter cantanckerous toad in all Christendom.”
This citation, which we’ve expanded, is from The Rivals, a 1775 comedy by Richard Brinsley Sheridan:
“But I hope, Mr. Faulkland, as there are three of us come on purpose for the game—you won’t be so cantanckerous as to spoil the party by sitting out.”
And in this entry from A Provincial Glossary: With a Collection of Local Proverbs, and Popular Superstitions (2nd ed., 1790), the lexicographer Francis Grose tracks the usage to Wiltshire: “Contankerous. Quarrelsome. Wilts.”
The first OED example with the modern spelling cites a March 24, 1842 letter by the English author Mary Russell Mitford addressed “To Miss Barrett, Wimpole Street”:
“I rather have a fancy for Mr. Roebuck, who is as cantankerous and humorous (in the old Shakesperian sense) as Cassius himself.” (From an 1870 collection of Mitford’s letters, edited by Alfred Guy Kingan L’Estrange.) John Arthur Roebuck was a British politician.