A Whimsical Etymology of a Whimsical Word
By Anatoly Liberman
Old codger is a phrase most speakers of American English still understand (in British English it has much greater currency), but cadger is either obsolete or dead. Yet the two words are often discussed in concert. A cadger was a traveling vendor, whose duties may have differed from that of a hawker, a peddler (the British spelling is pedlar), or a badger, but all those people were street dealers of sorts. The OED defines cadger so: “a carrier; esp. a species of itinerant dealer who travels with a horse and cart (or formerly with a pack-horse), collecting butter, eggs, poultry, etc., from remote country farms for disposal in the town, and at the same time supplying the rural districts with small wares from the shops.” This meaning was recorded as early as the middle of the 15th century. Derogatory senses like “a person prone to mooching” surfaced in books much later. Also late is the verb cadge “beg,” believed to be a back formation from the noun (like beg from beggar). The origin of cadger is unknown, and I have nothing to say on this subject, except for guessing that it must have been influenced by badger and citing a very old opinion, according to which in the days of falconry the man who bore the “cadge” or cage (a perch for the hawk) was called cadger. This etymology has little to recommend it.
The word that inspired the present post is codger “stingy (old) man,” “grumpy elderly man,” or simply “man” (like chap, fellow, or guy). It appeared in books only at the very end of the 18th century, and dictionaries say that it may be a dialectal variant of cadger. This is possible, but, to my mind, unlikely. Other etymologies are not even worth considering: from Engl. cottager, Engl. cogitate, German kotzen “to vomit,” Spanish, Turkish, Irish Gaelic, or (particularly silly) from the phrase coffee dodger. I am surprised no one derived codger from kosher. On January 18, 1890, Notes and Queries published the following letter by the OED’s editor James A.H. Murray, who was at that time working on the letter C: “Todd explains this [the word codger] as ‘contemptuously used for a miser, one who rakes together all he can’, in accordance with his own conjectural derivation from Sp[anish] coger, ‘to gather, get as he can’. Later dictionaries all take this sense from him (Webster with wise expression of doubt), but none of them gave any evidence. I have not heard it so used, nor does any suspicion of such a sense appear in any of the thirty quotations sent in for the word by our readers. Has Todd’s explanation any basis? A schoolboy to whom I have spoken seems to have heard it so used; but he may have confused it with cadger, which many take as the same.” Todd was the editor of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary (1818).
Several people responded to Murray’s query. The luckless schoolboy was derided for his incompetence, and almost everybody insisted that codger, unlike cadger, is a term of endearment, but one letter writer pointed out that in the fifties of the 19th century in Derbyshire (the East Midlands) “codger or rummy codger had been constantly used when alluding to persons of peculiar and eccentric ways, as well of others of doubtful character, or of whom mistrust was felt. A bungler of work was termed a codger, and it was the fate of every little lass who did sewing at school to cadge her work, that is, make an unsightly mess of the stitching. A piece of bad sewing was called a codge-bodge” (clearly, on analogy of hodge-podge). Either this letter or the suspicion that, however ludicrous Todd’s Spanish etymology may have been, such a reliable lexicographer would not have concocted a sense only to fit a fanciful derivation made Murray look for more citations, and his printed entry begins with a pre-1818 dialectal example of codger synonymous with cadger. Todd’s definition also ended up in the rubric “dialectal” and was followed by several others from various parts of England. Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary has codge “to botch, mend clumsily, bungle, patch” and codger “a slovenly worker.”
Cadger and codger certainly overlapped; yet I think that originally they were different words. I also believe that codger was coined as a term of abuse (if so, dialects that refer to codgers as persons inviting distrust preserved the earliest meaning) and with time shed its most prominent negative characteristics (compare jocular phrases like you, rascal). Historical semantics knows two processes: the deterioration of meaning (when a word acquires negative connotations, for example, from “dear woman” to “whore”) and the amelioration of meaning (when the opposite happens, as witnessed by fond: several centuries ago it meant “foolish”). Perhaps codger can serve as an illustration of the second process. To offer an etymology, I have to return to the ideas developed in my blogs on nudge and dodge. English words beginning with and ending in j- ~ -dge tend to have an expressive character. This does not hold for words of French origin like large, courage, and scourge, or for the native words that at one time had -gg in a certain position (bridge, sedge, forge, and so forth). But jig, jog, jag, job, fudge, budge, grudge, and their likes are usually words of questionable etymology and are indeed expressive. Variation of the slush ~ sludge type can be disregarded here, though it will appear below in the denouement. No phonetic regularity allows us to derive -dge from -g if the word did not occur in Old English. With -d to -g the situation is less complicated, for we still say didgeyou for did you. However, nudge seems to be related to a sizable group of words whose root ended in -g; all them referring to “petty movements” (niggardly is one of them). And this is where my conjecture comes in.
Codge “botch, mend clumsily” looks like a back formation of codger, but we know so little about it that there is no certainty. The verb cog “cheat at cards or dice” turned up in our sources early in the 16th century. It is a typical cant word of forgotten origin, and I would like to suggest that it may have had an expressive variant codge “deceive, play dirty tricks,” from which codger was formed and of which the recorded codge may be a relic. (However, the last point is not crucial: codge “botch” may have been coined regardless of its putative homonym.) Since peddlers command little respect in society, codger, from codge, would have crossed the paths of cadger. According to my reconstruction, codger all but ousted cadger. But the victory came at a cost: instead of meaning “swindler” codger began to mean” bungler” (already a weakened sense), later “stingy man; curmudgeon” and simply “an eccentric old man.” If somebody says that since codge, from cog, is a ghost word, my derivation lacks merit, I’ll be the first to agree but will argue that cant words made their way into print unsystematically. A verb like codge “cheat” may have escaped the attention of the few writers who reproduced the language of the underworld, especially if it was mostly current in dialects. Although botch has the variant bodge, and grudge has the variant grutch, how often do we see bodge and grutch in print? Finally, if while refuting my etymology, somebody happens to come up with a better idea, I will be more than compensated for my botched effort.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him, care of email@example.com and he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”