WORD: Old Man Edition

January 8, 2007

from the New Republic’s politics blog:

“It isn’t just that McCain will be 72 if/when he is elected president; it’s also that his health isn’t good, he has a seeming inability to control his cantankerousness, and his statements on Iraq are increasingly disconnected from reality.”

i’ve always loved the word “cantankerous” because is seems to be just another way society has of making fun of the elderly. I can’t adnumber a single time when I’ve  heard “cantankerous” used to describe anyone bellow the age of 60. In fact, I readily expected that the dictionary definition contained old age.

Not so.

The OED gives: ” Showing an ill-natured disposition; ill-conditioned and quarrelsome, perverse, cross-grained,” and the AHD provides the same. AHD also adds the following: “Difficult to handle: “had to use liquid helium, which is supercold, costly and cantankerous” (Boston Globe).” It’s not hard to see the connection between the two definitions, which is most apparent in the adverbial form.

So how does the world come to almost exclusively describe old people? The first series of OED quotes use the word as a general adjective until “1865 LIVINGSTONE Zambesi ix. 195 A crusty old bachelor or..a cantankerous husband.,” from which the current usage seems to stem.

The OED also gives the nonce-wd “Cantaker” which they say is equivalent to cantankerousness, and the verb cantankerate, to provoke, also a nonce-word. Cantanker seems like a useless word, but I’m fine with cantankerate. Cantanker should have been a noun equivalent to the middle English “conteckour one who raises strife”; at least that would have given it something to do.

so the good news is anybody can be cantankerous; the word is not limited to the stodgy, indigent, and incontinent. just don’t take any guff from cantankers.

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One Response to “WORD: Old Man Edition”

  1. Annie Says:

    McCain might be cantankerous, but he for sure is batshit crazy about 10% of the time.


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