Dr Johnson’s curmudgeon

Curmudgeon, the word for a surly or miserly person, first appeared in 1577 in Richard Stanyhurst’s Description of Ireland which suggests an Irish origin. It may have been borrowed from Gaelic and one suggestion is a reference to  muigean for a disagreeable person.

One of the greatest men of letters in the English language, Dr Samuel Johnson, added curmudgeon to his dictionary in 1755. He claimed to have been convinced that the word came from French cœur méchant for spiteful heart. However, there is absolutely no evidence to support it (Johnson was working to a deadline).

There is much said that Johnson himself was quite curmudgeonly. In June 1735 Johnson applied for a headmaster’s position at Solihull School but was not successful because the school’s directors thought he was:

 … a very haughty, ill-natured gent, and that he has such a way of distorting his face (which though he can’t help) the gents think it may affect some lads.

It is thought that Johnson had Tourettes Syndrome (which had not then been described) and Boswell, his first biographer and friend, claimed that Johnson:

… felt himself overwhelmed with an horrible melancholia, with perpetual irritation, fretfulness, and impatience; and with a dejection, gloom, and despair, which made existence misery.

Today is Dr Johnson’s birthday, he was born on 18 September 1709. Considering Johnson’s afflictions it is remarkable that he functioned at all, let alone became one of the greatest writers we have known. Therefore we should forgive him his curmudgeonliness.