Dear Word Detective: I found a reference in Wikipedia suggesting that the word “mooch” had its first appearance in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, related to the character of Wesley Mouch. Webster’s says the word originated in 1851, but its explanation is “probably from French dialect ‘muchier,’ to hide, lurk”… and now I’m curious. Do you have anything more certain than a “probably?” — Foxx.
Whoa, hold it right there. Atlas Shrugged is a novel? As in “made-up story”? Holy cow. This is serious. Has anyone told Alan Greenspan? Never mind; I guess it’s too late. Incidentally, I haven’t read either of the recent biographies of Ayn Rand, but I have read the reviews, and while I knew that Alan Greenspan had been a big fan of Rand, I didn’t know that he had spent a protracted period actually sitting at her feet. Seriously. She apparently held little soirées in her apartment where she would read aloud from her works to her assembled acolytes. I wonder if that works with cats.
I guess I should try harder to answer questions in the same decade you folks send them, because the suggested etymology of “mooch” that you mention seems to have disappeared from Wikipedia while your email was cooling its heels in my to-do file. A quick Googling of “Wesley Mouch” and “mooch,” however, indicates that Wikipedia had it backwards. Rand clearly intended the name of Wesley Mouch, a bumbling bureaucrat who cripples the US economy with a byzantine web of regulations, to remind readers of the word “mooch.” That strikes me as a bit like naming your character Doofus McMeddler, but whatever. I guess the free market didn’t mind.
I’m not sure why Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary told you that “mooch” first appeared in 1851. That date is accurate for one of the modern meanings of “to mooch,” which is “to loaf or loiter around” or “to skulk or sneak.” But the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates “mooch” in its original meaning of “to be miserly; to be a hoarder” all the way back to around 1400. Around 1600, “mooch” apparently acquired the additional meaning of “to play truant from school,” especially, in a bit of oddly specific weirdness, “to play truant in order to pick blackberries.” In 19th century western England, in fact, “mooch” was a popular dialect term for a blackberry.
By the mid-19th century, “mooch” had reached its primary modern meaning as a verb, “to scrounge or cadge money, food, etc., from someone; to beg or sponge from another person.” The noun “mooch” appeared at roughly the same time, meaning a person who “mooches,” the act of “mooching,” or a person who is easily taken in or swindled (perhaps by a “moocher”).
It is true that the most likely origin of “mooch” (sorry, we’re fresh out of certainty on this one) is the Anglo-Norman word “muscher,” which harks back to the Old French “mucier” or “muchier,” meaning “to hide or conceal.” There are, however, other theories. One ties “moocher” to the Old High German “muharri,” meaning “robber.” Another traces it to the Middle English “mucchen,” meaning “to be stingy,” derived from “mucche,” nightcap, and possibly originally meaning “to hide coins in one’s nightcap.” Funny how that doesn’t seem as crazy today as it would have a few years ago, isn’t it?