I love you all. Now get off my lawn.
Dear Word Detective: I noted that you used “cantankerous” in the description of another word, but there wasn’t a entry for “cantankerous” on your website. Can you elaborate? — Monica.
Hey, you’re right. Apart from that one use in a column about the word “ornery,” I haven’t used “cantankerous” (much less explained it) a single time in all these years. I guess when you have a sunny disposition like mine, the glass is always at least half-full of delicious sody-pop and, gosh darn it, you just don’t have time for all those frowny old words like “cantankerous.” Strangely enough, there are people who expect me to be a bit of a cranky, cantankerous curmudgeon myself when they meet me (especially if they’ve met me before), but the truth is that I greet each day with a feeling of soaring euphoria so intense that I can barely restrain myself from breaking into song. I kid you not. I gotta remember to get this prescription refilled. Now who’s ready for pie?
Meanwhile, back at your question, “cantankerous” is a word so perfectly suited in form to its meaning of “argumentative, ill-tempered, cranky” that you might well guess what it meant just from the sound of the word. Even the Oxford English Dictionary, not known for musing aloud in print, notes the “oddly appropriate sound” of “cantankerous.” The only other possible meaning that the sound of the word evokes for me would be an unpleasant skin disease, and that’s probably because it reminds me of “canker.”
“Cantankerous” first appeared in print in English, as far as we know, in Oliver Goldsmith’s 1772 comedic play She Stoops to Conquer (“There’s not a more bitter cantanckerous road in all christendom”). It’s worth noting that “cantankerous,” unlike many words, has never varied in meaning since its first appearance. It still just means “cranky and difficult” and it’s still in wide use today (“But rather than crack a smile, [Barney] Frank began a harangue that was cantankerous even by his standards, sniping at everything from the Tea Party to the Boston Herald,” Boston Globe, 11/03/10).
The origins of “cantankerous” are, fittingly for a word that means “uncooperative,” uncertain, although we do have a general sense of its lineage. The most likely source is the Middle English “”conteke,” which meant “contention, quarrelling,” from which came “contekour,” a person who argues, and finally something like “contackerous” meaning the quality of being a real pill. The final form of “cantankerous” may have been influenced by the spelling of words such as “traitorous” and “rancorous.”
It’s also possible that “cantankerous” is related to the Irish “cannran,” meaning “strife or grumbling.” Or that it is based on the Old French “contechier,” meaning, loosely, “firmly held,” which certainly fits with the idea of stubbornness. If this Anglo-French connection is true, the ultimate root of “cantankerous” may be the Latin “contactus,” past participle of “contingere,” meaning “to touch” and also the source of our English “contact.”
That may sound like a rather large cloud of possibilities that doesn’t get us very far in our quest for the origin of “cantankerous,” but its possible that all of those theories are true and just represent various bits of a very winding path taken by the word.