A surly, cantankerous person, bad-tempered, difficult –
The origin of the word curmudgeon is dated by the Online Etymology Dictionary to the 1570s, but there’s no indication as to why such a word might have been invented in the late Renaissance. Dr. Johnson rather romantically identified it as an Anglicization of the French expression ‘coeur mechant’ – the evil heart – a definition I rather like, although it’s resoundingly debunked by etymologists. Even the REAL OED has no explanation for it. Why were people more cantankerous after about 1570? Actually, my current research into early modern deceit and fraud indicates that these became real causes for cultural anxiety around the same time, so perhaps the result was a surly aesthetic of disbelief – scepticism writ large as a personal outlook, leading to cynical dispositions.
‘Cantankerous’ is slightly clearer, developing out of Middle English ‘contakour’ or ‘trouble-maker’, itself from Anglo-French ‘contec’ meaning discord and strife, but only taking its present form in the eighteenth century, perhaps the result of some collision between the Middle English origin and ‘raucous’ (from Latin ‘racco’ – a roar) but perhaps also with ‘rancour’ (or ‘rancor’) from the Latin ‘rancere’ to stink. Thus either a roaring or rancid trouble-maker (and perhaps, therefore, giving rise to the colloquial expression ‘to raise a stink’, from the mid nineteenth century).
Another possible origin for curmudgeon associates the first syllable, ‘cur’, with ‘dog’ (from the Norse ‘kurre’ and ‘kurdogge’), usually used in reference to a particularly vicious or cowardly beast; but ‘mudgeon’ is much more difficult to place. Perhaps Gaelic ‘muigean’, meaning an unpleasant person, but then why the elision with ‘dog’?
I personally do not find curmudgeons unpleasant – fixed habits of outlook are dependable ways to get through life. A determination to walk on the shady side of the street is neither better nor worse than strolling on the sunny side. Not troublesome, as in cantankerous, but perhaps troubled and troubling to the equally resolute and unchangeably sunny dispositions of the world.
In the end, I like Robert Frost’s definition of the curmudgeon best – as one who merely has “a lover’s quarrel with the world” – from The Lesson for Today, 1942.