The quest for equal-opportunity nouns

The Monitor's language columnist muses over just who can qualify as a curmudgeon.

It's a question I've been ducking for a while, but somehow I feel the time has come to confront it: Is curmudgeon an equal-opportunity noun? Can it apply to a woman as well as a man?

(I will leave you to imagine, Dear Reader, why this question should trouble a female wordsmith who not infrequently feels called upon to apply the brakes to the language – even as her wiser self realizes that change and renewal are essential.)

The "quick definition" at the dictionary website is "a crusty irascible cantankerous old person full of stubborn ideas."

Well. No stinting on adjectives there, is there? Other dictionaries are more gender-specific. Merriam-Webster gives "a crusty, ill-tempered, and usually old man." The dictionary the Monitor uses, on the other hand, gives this: a surly, ill-mannered, bad-tempered person; cantankerous fellow." Person is clearly an equal-opportunity noun; fellow not so much.

The Online Etymology Dictionary traces fellow back to an Old English word meaning "partner." Fellow has been used familiarly since Middle English for "man, male person" but the word is "not etymologically masculine," OED says.

Still, when the astronomer Maria Mitchell discovered a comet and became, in 1848, the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the rest of the membership balked at calling her a "fellow." Instead, they called her an "honorary member."

Nowadays, female "fellows" are everywhere at think tanks and universities, proving that you can be a fellow without having to be an actual guy. In any case, one hopes that Mitchell moved on from this slight, without being a curmudgeon about it – since that option might not have been open to her either.

The other burning question about curmudgeon is its origin. OK, not burning, but smoldering, surely, at least since Samuel Johnson explained it in his 1755 dictionary as derived from French words meaning "evil heart." Twenty years later another writer repeated and compounded this unfounded assertion. A 20th-century editor at Random House later described the whole episode as "an embarrassing lexicographic moment."

That editor, in an entry for the Random House Word of the Day feature, noted that curmudgeon "is usually applied to a man, especially an older man, but that doesn't seem to be inherent in the word."

Further, she opined that curmudgeon probably "has some connection with cur, which came into English early in the 12th century and is related to Germanic verbs meaning 'to growl.' " The second half of the word, she suggested, may come from one of two old Scottish words: mudgeon, meaning "grimace," or murgeon, "to mock or grumble."

This sounds more plausible than "evil heart." It also lets me add to another one of my odd little word collections: miscellaneous words ending in -geon.

There are several of them: burgeon, dungeon, pigeon, surgeon, and sturgeon. They're a mixed bag as to meaning and usage, but what they share is they came into English from French around 1300 or somewhat later.

If our friend at Random House is right, curmudgeon doesn't quite fit in with this group, despite its spelling. But that's the nature of a curmudgeon, not to fit in, isn't it? Which is why I don't really aspire to be one – even if it's an equal-opportunity noun.

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