The origin of curmudgeon is not known for certain, although etymologist Anatoly Liberman provides a reasonable explanation. What we do know for certain is that the earliest known use of the word can be found in Richard Stanyhurst’s A Treatise Contayning a Playne and Perfect Description of Irelande, which appears in the 1577 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles (the OED cites the second, 1587, edition, but it also appears in the earlier one). The passage in question describes the reasons why a certain Lady Elenor should take up with a suitor by the name of Odoneil who was “so butcherly a cuttbrote”:
the feare of his [her nephew’s] daunger mooued hir to annere to such a clownish Curmudgen
Liberman suggests a Gaelic etymology, from muigean, “a churlish, disagreeable person,” plus car-, literally meaning “twist, bend” but when used as a prefix can have an intensifying effect, the Gaelic equivalent of the Latin dis-. Liberman’s etymology is not only linguistically plausible, but Stanyhurst was Irish and writing in an Irish context, so the Gaelic connection is a reasonable surmise.
Other suggested etymologies are more likely to be found, but are not supported by any evidence. One such is that it is a variation on cornmudgin. The Middle English muchen means to hoard. So a cornmudgin is someone who hoards grain. The problem with this explanation is the only known use of cornmudgin is from Philemon Holland’s Livy’s Romane Historie of 1600:
The fines that certeine cornmudgins [frumentarios] paid, for hourding up [...] their graine.
Since curmudgeon is older than this, it is more likely that cornmudgin is a one-off pun, playing on curmudgeon.
Another unsupported etymology is from Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary:
curmudgeon n.s. [It is a vitious manner of pronouncing coeur mechant, Fr. an unknown correspondent.]
Coeur mechant means bitter or evil heart in French. Johnson’s dictionary is a landmark lexicographic achievement, but he got a lot wrong and his etymologies are often particularly suspect. This one from the unknown correspondent is one such case. It is a reasonable guess, but it’s not supported by evidence.
Johnson’s etymology has also given rise to one of the worst lexicographic howlers in history when in 1775 lexicographer John Ash gave the etymology as “from the French coeur, unknown, and mechant, correspondent.” To be fair to Ash, Johnson’s wording is ambiguous, but Ash should have checked the translation.
Liberman, Anatoly, An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology, University of Minnesota Press, 2008, s. v. mooch, 162–65.
Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. curmudgeon, n.
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton