Tuesday, February 5, 2013


I seem to be slacking a bit in writing up this blog lately. Don't worry, though--the ignorance never runs out around these parts. I have a host of unknown things brewing, but most require, uh, drilling down a bit more than I've had the time for. However, I just used the word "cantankerous" in a comment, and suddenly wondered, where the heck did that word come from? I think we all know what the word means--some of us from actually being it a good deal of the time. Crabby, grumpy, misanthropic--like that. As a sound, it has overtones of cankers and tanks and cancerous, adding to its resonance. But I am actually pretty sure that it has nothing to do with any of these.

I don't even seem to be able to come up with one of my dubious and usually highly inaccurate guesses. So let's proceed.


More good synonyms: bad-tempered, peevish, shrewish, quarrelsome, contentious, argumentative, uncooperative. What a wowser of a word.

Apparently, it is thought to be an old "Wiltshire word", which I've never heard of, but not only do they exist, there is a whole glossary of them, obligingly written up by one John Yonge Akerman in Kent, in 1842. You can read it or download it for free. I think the preface is worth reading just in itself, especially the author's realization that words he had always thought of as just vulgar jargon were actually a remnant of the language of Bede, Alfred and Aelfric.

'Cantankerous' doesn't yield itself to analysis all that easily. It is most likely an alteration of the Middle English word contakour, which means 'troublemaker' (yeah, I've been called that too), with contec being the old Anglo-French for conflict or strife. But it has been influenced by other words, maybe a fair number of other words, as I've seen cant, rancorous, raucous, and cankerous suggested. It's interesting that canker is also listed in that Wiltshire word dictionary. So at least one of my guesses above was right, and since cancerous and cankerous turn out to be quite closely related, maybe I have a better than usual average here.

You just never know what you're going to find when you research words on the web. Knowing full well that I will probably now permanently lose all male readers of this blog, this etymologist is just too astounding to pass up. Not only cantankerous but porcupine are explained. If only she'd said hedgehog, it might have boosted my ratings a bit before this blog totally expired through lost readership.



  1. Good that you're posting again. I was ready to mutter, "Geez, doesn't she not know anything?"

    I have always loved "cantankerous," beguiled by its euphony out of inquiring about its origins. Wiltshire is where Stonehenge is, so perhaps that mysterious monument was erected by a crew pf peevish Neolithic construction workers. muttering under their breath about being forced out of bed so early to do the job.

  2. Thanks, Peter. Yes I definitely DO not know anything, so all is well.

    A funny thing that I noticed when I put up that map is that "Wilshire" comes out of that Wiltshire area, from that whole lazy way of eliding things that the English have. I first had a hint of this in trying to puzzle out Worcestershire sauce as a child. Wilshire Boulevard ran through my earliest Santa Monica childhood, and apparently it came a long long way to get to me.

  3. Loved learning about cantankerous and contakour! You are very brave to post the Hot for Words video--silly & fun! Interesting motivational technique in education. For a certain population, I bet it works!

  4. I consider it a public service, Kathleen.Anything in the cause of making people more etymolgically aware...

    Actually, it's a pretty brilliant idea. I bet there is a whole generation of dropouts who would have stayed in school with teachers like that.

  5. Contec, since it meant strife, may have something to do with contest, I suspect.

  6. Contest. Added to list. Looking over this, I already retain very little of what I wrote here, and it's only a few months on. Oh, well.