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shameless pleading

Mudgeon

Mix and match misanthropy.

Dear Word Detective: As a teenager I had a friend who used “mudgeon” as a suffix, usually to insult someone. Example: if he wanted to imply you were less than manly, he would call you a “pussmudgeon.” A girl he deemed homely was an “ugmudgeon,” etc. The only common word I can think of containing “mudgeon” is “curmudgeon.” Any thoughts? — Bruce Brantley.

That’s, um, very interesting. A curious mixture of erudition (many teenage boys would likely never have encountered “curmudgeon”), analytical thinking (extracting what appears to be a suffix), creativity (coining words), and a pretty disturbing anti-social streak. I’m guessing that today this guy either works in advertising or sells bogus herbal remedies on the internet.

Apart from your friend’s malicious inventions, “curmudgeon” is indeed the only English word that ends in “mudgeon.” There are, however, at least eight other English words that end in “udgeon,” only two of which, “bludgeon” and “dudgeon,” are at all common. We know “bludgeon” as a verb meaning “to beat and/or to knock down with a heavy club or similar weapon,” but it first appeared in the early 18th century as a noun meaning “a short stick or club,” usually with one end weighted. The roots of “bludgeon” are, unfortunately, unknown, though a connection to the Dutch “bludsen,” to bruise, has been suggested.

“Dudgeon” is a fine word meaning “a feeling of anger, resentment or simmering outrage,” today usually encountered in the phrase “in high dudgeon” (“[He] resigned his position as reporter of the Committee in high dudgeon,” 1885). The origin of “dudgeon” is another mystery, although it may be connected to the obsolete English term “dudgen,” meaning “trash” or “mean, contemptible.”

The other “udgeon” words in English are either obscure or obsolete today. There’s another “dudgeon” meaning a low grade of wood used for tool handles, the “gudgeon,” a kind of small fish, the “humdugeon,” an imaginary illness (“hum” in the sense of “hoax” found in “humbug,” plus “dudgeon” in the sense of “disorder”), an entirely different “gudgeon” meaning a hinge, swivel or the like, and “trudgeon,” meaning a toddler or someone who “trudges” (probably just a fanciful invention based on “trudge”).

“Curmudgeon,” meaning an irritable, intolerant, and miserly person, dates back to the late 16th century. For most of its history, “curmudgeon” has meant a throughly unpleasant person (“Certain greedy curmuggions, who value not the leaving of a good name behind them to posterity,” 1656), usually a man. In recent decades, the term has softened somewhat, and now is usually applied to an irascible but (at least on TV and in the movies) ultimately lovable old codger whose forbidding attitude can be melted into treacle by the approach of a small orphan.

The origin of “curmudgeon” is, predictably, uncertain. It has been suggested that the “mudgeon” comes from the Middle English “muchen,” to steal, and that the “cur” refers in some respect to a dog (thus either someone who steals dogs or a “dog” of a man who steals). It has also been suggested that “cur” was perhaps originally “corn,” making the curmudgeon a “corn thief.” In his landmark 1755 dictionary, Dr. Samuel Johnson reported that an “unknown correspondent” had advanced the possibility that “curmudgeon” came from the French “mechant coeur,” or “evil heart,” but no actual etymological evidence has been found to support that theory.

1 comment to Mudgeon

  • Danny S.

    I have seen the word “curmudgeon” countless times, but I always somehow reversed the “u” and the “r” in my mind, and thought that the word was “crumudgeon”. Perhaps someone who argues over crumbs. The archetypal curmudgeon, to me, would be Andy Rooney, and I wonder if that is who you were thinking of when you mentioned the meaning of the word having softened “at least on TV”.

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