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Word Wisdom: Cantankerous

The latest inspirational column from Rev. Dr. John Kreutzwieser.
Word Wisdom

We are in the midst of some bathroom renovations. We take our time so even though it goes slowly we can adapt to changing situations as the work proceeds. However, I become a cantankerous renovator when things do not go as planned and the frustration level increases. Unfortunately, Patti must absorb my exasperations, as it is just the two of us working together.

Cantankerous means difficult or irritating to deal with. It was first used in 1772, in the play She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith: “There’s not a more bitter cantanckerous road in all Christendom.” Cantankerous people are cranky, grumpy, and often angry. Yet if we can think charitably about them for a moment we might consider that they possibly suffer from a health affliction or other malady that sours the mood.

As far as the origin of cantankerous, there are several theories. It could be a joining of the Middle English word contakour, which means troublemaker and contention, with the word raucous, meaning bitter deep-seated ill will and disagreeably harsh. Another possibility is the Irish word cannran, which means grumbling. It’s been speculated that cantankerous derives from cankerous, an understandable foul mood. A cankerous person can suffer from painful canker sores.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the usage may have evolved from the Middle English conteke, meaning quarrelling, with conteckour, a quarrelsome person. The use of “ous” is a word-forming element making adjectives from nouns. It implies "having, full of, having to do with, doing, inclined to.” This comes from the Old French -ous, -eux, from Latin -osus

A cantankerous person shows an ill-natured, ill-conditioned disposition. The dictionary’s earliest citation is from An Alphabet of Kenticisms (1736), by the Samuel Pegge: “Contancrous, peevish, perverse, prone to quarrelling.”

In The Rivals, a 1775 comedy by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, he writes, “But I hope, Mr. Faulkland, as there are three of us come on purpose for the game—you won’t be so cantanckerous as to spoil the party by sitting out.”

The first example with the modern spelling cites a March 24, 1842 letter by the English author Mary Russell Mitford addressed “To Miss Barrett, Wimpole Street”: I rather have a fancy for Mr. Roebuck, who is as cantankerous and humorous (in the old Shakespearean sense) as Cassius himself.”

Synonyms of cantankerous are crotchety and ornery. People often use these adjectives when describing some older men and women. Although at what age a person could be considered such when having a difficult and contrary disposition, is debatable. Sometimes someone can be described as ill-natured, which is similar. I have heard people compared to a cantankerous mule. Mules have a habit of going their own way or refusing to move at all despite the best efforts of riders or leaders.

Cantankerous can also describe discussions between opposing views that become heated. “With many more transmission lines needed to support renewable energy projects, the public fights are expected to get even more cantankerous.” 

Still, the most common usage seems to apply to seniors. “He was the kind of cantankerous old man who once berated a person knocking on the front door by threatening to fetch the broomstick and administer a thrashing.”

I hope Patti does not label me as cantankerous during these bathroom renovations. Things do seem to be going along fine right now, but stay tuned . . . 

John would like to know if anyone has a sincere interest in a relevant word that he could possibly research for an upcoming column. If so, please send your requests to . Words will be selected according to relevance and research criteria. We cannot confirm that all words will be used.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication. 

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