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Warren Clements

Where do curmudgeons come from? Best to double-check Add to ...

If April showers bring May flowers, why did the Mayflower land in Massachusetts in March? If rooks live in a rookery, do mockingbirds live in a mockery? This is a week for discursiveness.

First, I should own up to an error last week. I had wondered whether a vanity licence plate that said “pas de2” should be read as pas de deux (the dance) or “pas de tout” (French for “not at all”). As a number of readers kindly reminded me, the second phrase is correctly spelled “pas du tout.” The moral is correctly spelled, “Double-check everything.”

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Another column sought the earliest book with the odd phrase “unauthorized autobiography” in the title. The hunt ended at John Krich’s 1982 paperback A Totally Free Man: An Unauthorized Autobiography of Fidel Castro. Reader Pete Gorman took up the challenge and reported that, while he couldn’t find an earlier published book that fit the bill, he met with related success.

“In 1978,” he wrote, “New Times reported that founding yippie Abbie Hoffman was working on a book he hoped to title The Unauthorized Autobiography of Abbie Hoffman, though he ultimately went with Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture (1980) instead.

The Unauthorized Autobiography of Howard Who? was a comedy album released by New York’s Caedmon Records in 1972. Jeri Emmett’s 1966 book Point Your Tail in the Right Direction was advertised (in 1968 and 1969) as the ‘unauthorized autobiography of a Playboy Bunny.’

“In 1905 (!), The Congregationalist and Christian World (vol. 90) included an announcement from popular hymn writer Fanny Crosby protesting ‘the sale of an unauthorized autobiography which is being pushed by the claim that she needs the profits from the sale.’”

William Vance wrote: “Your column on ‘unauthorized autobiography’ brought to mind another dubious ‘auto,’ that of an autopsy. Imagine the difficulty of performing a postmortem on oneself!”

He was joking, of course, but autopsy does derive from the Greek word auto, self. The Greek autoptes ( auto plus optos, seen, from which we get optical) meant seeing for yourself – being an eyewitness. This sense carried over into the postclassical Latin autopsia and into the English autopsy, which in 1600 meant personal observation.

The medical sense of personal observation of a cadaver for diagnosis was present in French in the late 1600s, but isn’t found in English until 1805. Given the current proliferation of postmortem procedurals on television, the word might more appropriately be spelled autop- CSI.

A friend asked about the origin of curmudgeon, that lovely noun describing an unlovely person, usually a man, who is ill-tempered and set in his ways. It would be a pleasure to report that the noun was onomatopoeic (sounding like the clearing of a curmudgeon’s throat) or had something to do with cur, the dog, but the truth is that nobody knows where the word came from.

They do know that it is old. It was in use by 1587 (“a clownish curmudgeon”) to describe a churlish miser, and was so familiar by 1600 that Philemon Holland, in translating Livy’s history of Rome, used “cornmudgin” as a play on words to describe someone who hid or hoarded corn. (Mudgin echoed an earlier word for pilfer.)

The uncertainty has not stopped writers from guessing at curmudgeon’s origin. Eric Partridge suggested it might be linked to “the echoic Scots curmurring, a low rumbling or murmuring.”

Samuel Johnson, in his 1755 dictionary, said he had heard “from an unknown correspondent” that curmudgeon was “a vicious manner of pronouncing ‘ coeur méchant,’” French for a wicked heart. But then, Johnson speculated that spider might derive from “ spy dor, the insect that watches the door.” (Later etymologists traced spider to the Old English spinnan, spin.)

For their part, the French translate curmudgeon as (says Cassell’s French Dictionary) le ladre or le pingre. This time, I double-checked.

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