How curmudgeonly are you?

Posted on Sat 26 Nov 2011 @ 6.10am UTC

Updated 17 July 2013 (Andy Rooney reference)

FOR THOSE who didn’t get the memo, yesterday (25th November 2011) was Curmudgeon Day.

The day before (24th) was Thanksgiving Day in the USA. With all the stuffed turkey, out-of-wedlock relatives and their embarrassing antics, the prospect of having to spend cold hard cash the next day and whatnot shoved down our American cousins’ throats, anyone would end up being a curmudgeon.

What’s a curmudgeon?

A curmudgeon [ker-muhj-juh’n | IPA: /kɜːˈmʌdʒən/] is a bad-tempered, difficult, cantankerous person — a surly or misery person: a grouch, crank, bear, sourpuss or crosspatch.

The adjective is curmudgeonly.

To cut a long story short, a curmudgeon is a flippin’ pain in the butt to be around with. He (usually a he) is always pissed off, always arguing or wanting to have the last word, always something eating him inside out. The acid lives inside of him.

The British ‘street-cred’ description is perhaps the best: someone who has got a nuclear warhead shoved deep up his arse.

Old and unexplained in origin

Curmudgeon is an old English word of unknown or disputed origin. Most dictionaries date its first appearance from around 1577.

Samuel Johnson suggested it may have originated in the French expression coeur merchant (‘evil heart’) but this is no longer taken seriously by etymologists.

Current thinking has it that the first syllable in CURmudgeon may have come from the Middle English word curre (1175–1225) meaning a mongrel dog, especially a worthless or vicious one.

(Curre itself was probably related to Old Norse kurra, to growl.)

Beyond dictionary meanings

Curmudgeon is not as widely used in writing or in speech as the adjective cantankerous [kan-tang-ker-russ, IPA: /kænˈtæŋ kər əs/]. Two possible reasons:—

1. Curmudgeon is one of those Victorian-sounding English words (although it actually dates from 1570–80) that you could never be sure whether it means something good or something awful, especially from the homely sound of curmudgeonly.

2. Cantankerous, even without knowing the meaning, sounds jarring enough to the ears anyway and you could infer it’s something not quite nice.

I noticed that curmudgeon is used more often by Americans and Canadians, and cantankerous more by the British and their cohorts. Google Ngrams hasn’t been helpful on this score (and I’m not bothering to use the other usual linguistic tools).

For the benefit of our ‘foreign-speaking’ readers, curmudgeon in other languages are:—

  • Chinese (Mandarin): 倔老頭 (simplified: 倔老头) jué lǎo-tóu (‘stubborn old head’)
  • Filipino: masungit na tao
  • French: avare (‘miser’)
  • German: Querkopf (‘cross-head’)
  • Greek: στραβόξυλο (stravóxylo)
  • Italian: musone
  • Japanese: 扱いにくいやつ atsukai nikui yatsu
  • Korean: 심술궂은 구두쇠 simsulguj-eun gudusoe
  • Latin: parcepromus
  • Malay: orang kikir (‘parsimonious man/individual’)
  • Russian: скряга (skryaga)
  • Swedish: bitvarg
  • Turkish: cimri tip

Cantankerous in other languages are:—

  • Chinese (generic Mandarin): 過敏的 / 过敏的 guò-mǐn de (‘over-sensitive’)
  • Chinese (generic Mandarin): 脾氣古怪 / 脾气古怪 pí-qì gǔ-guài (‘eccentric’)
  • Chinese (Cantonese): 倔頭倔尾 gwut tau gwut mei (literally, ‘blunt-headed, blunt-tailed’)
  • Chinese (Cantonese colloquial): dook hau dook bei (literally, ‘poke mouth, poke nose’)
  • French: acariâtre
  • German: streitsüchtig
  • Greek: στρυφνός (stryfnós)
  • Italian: irascibile
  • Japanese: 旋毛曲がり tsumujimagari (‘perversity’) / 気難しい kimuzukashī (‘grumpy’)
  • Korean: 심술 궂은 simsul guj-eun
  • Latin: difficilis
  • Malay: cepat marah (‘irritable’ or ‘irritability’)
  • Russian: сварливый (svarlivyĭ) /придирчивый (pridirchivyĭ : ‘hypercritical’)
  • Swedish: grälsjuk (‘quarrelsome’) / elak (‘malignant’)
  • Turkish: huysuzhırçın (‘combative’) / geçimsiz (‘out of tune’) / inatçı (‘stubborn’)

The short version

The short version: A cantankerous person is a quarrelsome or irascible person. Broadly speaking, this is how Americans understand it. In their mind’s eye (or ears), a curmudgeon or a cantankerous person would look like one of these two old farts:—

Muppets Statler and Waldorf are typical American curmudgeons

Andy Rooney of 60 Minutes also comes across somewhat curmudgeonly (albeit well-intentioned) to most Americans (and the rest of the world):—

CBS curmudgeon Andy Rooney (1919–2011)

The long bloody version

In the long version, the adjective cantankerous (hence curmudgeon) has a wider meaning: peevish, contentious and rancorous (that is, bitterness and/or with rankling resentment or ill will = spite) — qualities that make such a person disagreeable to deal with.

British version, har-dee-har-har: the nuclear warhead is in there somewhere

In other words, a cantankerous person is a quarrelsome person who is peevish, bitter and spiteful.

That is how many (if not most) British English speakers understand the word cantankerous (therefore curmudgeon).

Like curmudgeon, the word cantankerous also has a disputed origin. The current theory from etymologists is that cantankerous is a blend of contentious (belligerent, argumentative) and rancorous (bitter, spiteful). But, really, nobody knows for sure.

Origins don’t matter. What matters is that  both words describe a pretty awful attitude. It boils down to the way that person regards the world and the people around him or her, making that person such a f@#king disagreeable git.

The British curmudgeon seems a helluva lot more unpleasant than the American curmudgeon, although your experience might say otherwise.

In real life

First of all, curmudgeon and cantankerous are often associated with senile old farts elderly people. This is not strictly accurate. Many younger people (even youngsters) are curmudgeons and cantankerous.

Curmudgeons or cantankerous farts, whatever their age, are usually the type who have uptight, anal-rententive personalities — the kind with wee too many dissatisfactions, aversions and disinclinations about everything. In other words, they’re “a f@#king ray of sunshine” to put up with.

One German writer describes cantankerous people well:—

“Examples come to mind a lot when thinking about unpleasant people, like that neighbor across the street from your childhood home who complained about just about everything you did to your parents or that nasty landlord with the millions of rules about things like how many pictures you could hang before in the apartment to avoid undue damage to the walls.”
— “Funny word, cantankerous,” American Culture Explained, 13 Feb 2011 (Link)

Broadly speaking, curmudgeons are bloodyminded in mentality and behave like douchebags, but often living to a ripe old age — which explains why the words curmudgeon and cantankerous are often linked to old people. It’s not an age condition. It’s a character trait. Okay?

It is not nice to describe anyone as cantankerous or call someone a curmudgeon because that will make them behave exactly like one.

© Learn English or Starve, 2011. Updated 17 July 2013.

Images: Muppets Statler and Waldorf via Doseng ♦ Andy Rooney demotivational poster via MotiFake ♦ British version of curmudgeon via iStockPhotos.

Posted in: Colour Section