Without feathers.

Dear Word Detective: I belong to a retired group of old codgers, and I’m interested in the origin of the word “codger.” I was watching “The Adventure of English” on TV and the narrator said “codger” came from the word for a “hawk carrier,” i.e., the person who carried the hawk when hunting. Any suggestions? — Stan Young.

Well, I’m tempted to reply “Shoot your television,” but that’s probably not practical, as you live in Australia and need it for warnings of kangaroo attacks and the like.

I’m not familiar with “The Adventure of English,” but apparently it was a 2003 British television series tracing the history of the English language in eight episodes, presented by the well-known author and TV personality Melvyn Bragg. Mr. Bragg also produced, as is now customary, a book based on the series, and, through the magic of Google Books, I have managed to track down the page in that book corresponding to what he evidently said about “codger” on TV.

In a section dealing with the influence of French on the English language (which is considerable), the author points to the sport of falconry, where much of the terminology is Gallic in origin. He goes on to venture that “Our word ‘codger’ may come from the often elderly man who assisted the falconer by carrying the hawks on a ‘cadge’ or cage.”

As we say in the US, not so fast, buckaroo. It is true that our modern English “cage” is derived from the same word in Old French, in turn based on the Latin “cavea” meaning “enclosure for animals.” It is also true that falconers call the padded rack on which their birds are transported a “cadge” (pronounced “cage”), and the person who carries them is a “cadger.” But the connection of that “cadger” of falcons to “codger” is dubious.

The use of “cadge” for the rack on which falconers carry falcons is generally considered to be a modification of the word “cage” under the influence of the entirely separate word “cadge,” which early in its history meant “to carry about.” So a rack vaguely like a “cage” which was “cadged” (carried) came to be called a “cadge.” But the fact that folks confused two words that sound alike doesn’t make them linguistic relatives.

As for “codger,” meaning an old man, often with overtones of eccentricity, it may well be derived from “cadge,” but by a path which has no connection to falconry. The earliest use of the noun “cadger” in the 15th century was for itinerant dealers who “cadged” (carried) their wares from town to town. Later the term was applied to beggars and tramps (leading to our modern use of the verb “to cadge” to mean “to beg”). “Codger” is probably simply a dialect variation of “cadger,” and originally, in the 18th century, meant a stingy, miserly old man. The word has, of course, been softened over the years, and today “codger” is a fairly affectionate word for an older man.

2 comments on this post.
  1. Terry Baiko:

    Just saw this same show. Had to verify the etymology of codger and…. rats. The viddie did run a fair story. How many of his other claims need verified?

  2. Bob Myhan:

    It seems to me that “codger” might be a variation on cogitator, one who cogitates. If “codger” itself means “old man” why the phrase “old codger”? But “old cogitator” makes sense.

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