Do you get annoyed easily? Do you say "bah" and "meh" a lot? Does everything in the multiverse drive you crazy?
I'm no doctor, but you may be a curmudgeon.
The usual image of a curmudgeon is someone old or old-ish, since age does, stereotypically, tend to make folks a little grumpier. A typical 15-year-old dog is no doubt more curmudgeonly than a puppy, which is why older dogs often snap at puppies, like a crabbby coot complaining about millennials.
But curmudgeons can come in any age group, and there's something to be said for them in a world where so much enthusiasm seems phony and desperate. When everyone around you feels plastic and rah-rah, curmudgeonitude can feel like the only sane option.
That's probably why National Curmudgeons Day, celebrated on January 29, is growing in popularity. That particular date was selected to honor the ornery among us because it is the birthday of comedian, writer, and self-professed curmudgeon W.C. Fields. Born in 1880, Fields elevated curmudgeonliness to an art. This quip gives you an idea of his gift for humor and his outlook on life: “Start every day off with a smile and get it over with.”
So whether you are a curmudgeon or just know one, let's all take a moment to acknowledge National Curmudgeons Day with some terms I hope you won't pooh-pooh.
If someone is constantly talking about the good old days and complaining about whippersnappers, chances are they're not only curmudgeonly but old-fashioned. However, old-fashioned isn't necessarily an insult. Sometimes it’s a compliment: if someone mentions your old-fashioned manners, that's probably a good thing. Anything that looks or sounds like the past can be considered old-fashioned, from language to architecture. Another word for old-fashioned is old-timey.
Speaking of old-fashioned, nay is an old word for no, as in, "Nay! Thou shalt not stealeth my golden chalice, varmint." So a naysayer is someone constantly saying no. Naysayers are always doubting, contradicting, and discouraging. If you need a pep talk, stay away from naysayers.
Around since the 1700s, this meaty word almost sounds like its meaning. All those hard consonant sounds are perfect for a word describing a blunt personality with no soft edges. A cantankerous person is grumpy and grouchy and full of bile they're not afraid to spew if you bug them, which isn't hard to do. The Oxford English Dictionary records a few variations, such as cantankerously and cantankerousness.
Curmudgeons aren't always contrary, and contrarians aren't always curmudgeonly, but the Venn diagram of the two would have considerable overlap. A contrary person, as you might guess from the root contra, is someone who is always going against others. This kind of person can be annoying, maddening, infuriating, etc, and you probably know someone who fits the bill. A contrarian is someone who, if the sky is blue, will insist the sky is not blue. If your whole family agrees to see one movie, the contrarian in the bunch will insist that movie is a terrible choice. Contrarians don't just have unusual opinions: contrariness is about disagreeing for the sake of disagreement. A favorite saying of the contrary is "Well, actually…"
The most famous grouch is a green Muppet who lives in a garbage can, which would make anyone grouchy. If you're a grouch, you're likely a curmudgeon, and definitely have some anger issues. Grouches are dismissive, crabby, negative, nitpicky, and ornery. The first known uses of this term in the late 1800s referred to grouchy statements rather than grouchy people. An early OED example is from Harper's Bazaar in 1903: “No woman who comes down to her breakfast table with what her son frankly calls a "grouch on" is grouchy to herself alone.” The term started applying to people by about 1900. Grouches tend to grumble and gripe.
This is another word that can be a verb or noun: if you scold people a lot, you're a scold. Scolding is the language of blame. You can scold your child for not eating dinner, and you can scold politicians for not keeping the government open. People generally don't like to be scolded, since the scolder generally treats the scoldee like a child, no matter their age. Scolding is a close relative of nagging.
Curmudgeons are constantly saying "Bah!" and "Pah!" and "Nope!" to all sorts of things: sometimes those things involve money. When someone is particularly stingy with money, you can call them miserly, and such a person is a miser. It's no accident that these words are close to miserable, another word that describes plenty of curmudgeons.
Being an ingrate is different from being a curmudgeon, but neither are what you would call happy-smiley-jolly sorts of people. This word is pretty much self-defining: an ingrate lacks gratitude. This unthankful attitude leads to all sorts of less-than-ideal behavior, such as whining, complaining, grousing, and often being a weapons-grade curmudgeon.
First appearing in the 1600s, ornery began as a variation of ordinary. That may seem like a strange path, but ordinary things are sometimes dismissed as boring and mediocre, and ornery first applied to the same old, same old. From there, the term shifted from the outside world to the inner world, keeping the contempt as a common denominator. A use in Theodore Winthrop's 1861 novel John Brent states a timeless truth: "Good company betters the orneriest sort er weather."
We all feel ornery and grouchy sometimes, but let’s try not to be full-time curmudgeons. Those grumpy Muppets in the balcony, finding fault with everything, just don’t have the most fun.
For more words from the lexicon of crankiness, check out this list: Curmudgeon, Cantankerous, and Churlish: Grouchy Words.
Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore."Click here to read other articles by Mark Peters
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