Words For The Cranky And Disagreeable

by Kevin Burton

   God help me not to resemble this post.

   But today we tune into Merriam-Webster’s “19 words for the cranky and disagreeable,”
part of the words at play column on its website. We will not get to all 19, but here are some of the more helpful terms as you seek to describe the distant (on purpose) relatives at your Thanksgiving table.

   No, my picture is not in the Merriam-Webster or any other dictionary next to cranky. Thanks for asking.

   Now, on to the grouch words: 

Peevish “marked by ill temper”

   “Peevish comes from the slightly shorter Middle English word pevish (“spiteful”). Its first meaning, beginning in the 15th century, was “querulous in temperament or mood” (querulous meaning “habitually complaining”). In addition to this and the “ill-tempered” sense, peevish can also mean “perversely obstinate.”

   See also, pet peeve.

Fumish “tending to fume, choleric”

   “The earliest uses of fume in English tend to be related to the word’s origins; it comes from the Latin fumus, meaning “smoke.” By the early 16th century, however, fume was being used as a figurative verb, with the meaning of “to be in a state of excited irritation or anger.” At the same time we began to use fumish to mean both “smoky” (actual smoke) and “tending to fume” (in a figurative manner).

Surly “irritably sullen and churlish in mood or manner”

   “Few words on this list have changed over the years as much as surly. Among this word’s earliest uses, in the 16th century, were “lordly” and “majestic.” These senses came from the Middle English serreli (“lordly, imperious”). Along the way surly also came to mean “arrogant, imperious,” and following this took on the sense of “churlish” in which it is commonly employed today.

Curmudgeon  “surly but sweet”

Disputatious “inclined to dispute”

   “Disputatious may refer to your friend’s tendency to disagree with every plan you make, but can also take the meaning “marked by disputation (verbal controversy)” or “provoking debate.” Disputatious (and dispute) comes from the Latin disputare, which simply means “to discuss.”

Cantankerous  “difficult or irritating to deal with”

   “Cantankerous may sound like one of the many fine 19th-century Americanisms (such as snollygoster and hornswoggle) but it is not. Cantankerous, has been in use since at least the 18th century, and early evidence suggests that it was in use in the United Kingdom prior to America.

Captious “marked by an often ill-natured inclination to stress faults and raise objections”

   “Captious shares a root with accept, forceps, and nuncupate; all may be traced in part to the Latin word capere (“to take”). Capere gave rise to captio, which Latin means “deception” or “verbal quibble,” which makes sense when considering that one of the other meanings of captious is “calculated to confuse, entrap, or entangle in argument.”

   See also, American talk radio.

Eristic “characterized by disputatious and often subtle and specious reasoning”

   “In addition to serving as an adjective for the rhetorical method employed by your least-favorite uncle at Thanksgiving, eristic is also a noun, meaning either “a person devoted to logical disputation” or “the art or practice of disputation and polemics.” The word came into English in the early 17th century, and is from the Greek eristikos, “fond of wrangling.”

Hangry “irritable or angry because of hunger”

   “Of all words on this list which are roughly synonymous with “disagreeable,” hangry is probably the newest. It is not, however, the brainchild of some language-averse millennials; hangry has been in use for well over 60 years now.”

Cranky “readily angered when opposed”

   “When cranky loses its final Y, and is applied to a person it may mean either “an annoyingly eccentric person” or “a bad-tempered person.” Both of these senses made the transition to adjectivehood, as cranky may mean both “crochety” and “marked by eccentricity.” Cranky may also mean “full of twists and turns,” “working erratically,” or “silly,” but most of the time we use it to refer to our grumpy downstairs neighbor.

Irascible “marked by hot temper and easily provoked anger”

   “Irascible appears to have the same negative prefix as is found attached to many other words which initially began with an R, such as irreducibleirredeemable, and irrespective. However, the initial portion of irascible is not a negative prefix, but instead shows its roots in the Latin word for “anger,” which is ira.

   See also, irate.

Ornery “irritable”

   “Readers who are familiar with one of the more common senses of ornery (“irritable”) might well be surprised to learn that the word is an alteration of the word ordinary, as this root word has little to do with feelings of peevishness. The English-speaking people have been writing ordinary in abbreviated fashion since the early 16th century; we have citations of it written as ornary from 1534 onward. Ornary and similar variants persist for the next few centuries, and in the 19th century the word begins to feel a bit like an insult. By the middle of the 19th century ornery is being used to mean “cantankerous” rather than “ordinary.”

   I have only heard the word ornery uttered with a smile.  In common usage it is a positive word, much like curmudgeon. So if you have to be defined by one of these words, chose ornery.

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