By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Grumpy’ is a useful word: it can describe someone surly or ill-tempered: someone in a bad mood. The earliest citation for the word ‘grumpy’ given by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is 1778, when the novelist Frances Burney – an important influence on Jane Austen – used it in her epistolary novel Evelina: ‘You were so grumpy, you would not let me.’
Where did the word come from? Perhaps unsurprisingly, grumpy was derived from the earlier word grump, which itself came from a rhyming phrase, humps and grumps, used by Daniel Defoe in 1727. Grump is thought to be from grunt or from grumph, a Scottish word for a grunt (e.g., of disapproval or displeasure).
Let’s take a look at some of the alternative words for grumpy.
Synonyms for the word ‘grumpy’
SURLY is the first word the OED uses in its definition of ‘grumpy’, so this word seems like a good place to start. Curiously, the word surly is a variant spelling of sirly, the original word, which was derived from ‘sir’: the idea is that someone who was being surly (or sirly) was acting in the manner of a sir, i.e., imperious, haughty, and superior. We might compare the idea here of a girl being described as ‘a little madam’ when she gets uppity and demanding.
If someone is grumpy, however, they might not necessarily be acting in a superior manner but they probably will be MISERABLE, which is ultimately from the Latin miser meaning ‘wretched’. In the Middle Ages, ‘miserable’ meant ‘living in a wretched state’, e.g., in poverty. However, by the time Shakespeare wrote The Two Gentlemen of Verona in the 1590s, the more modern meaning – unhappy or melancholic – had arrived: ‘My youthfull trauaile, therein made me happy, / Or else I often had beene often miserable.’
Another Shakespeare play from the 1590s, The Taming of the Shrew, also gives us another useful synonym for ‘grumpy’: GRUMBLING. In that play we find reference to a ‘grumlling groome.’ This word is probably cognate with similar terms in other languages: the French grommeler meaning ‘to mutter between the teeth’, the Dutch grommelen, meaning ‘to rumble or growl’, and the German grummeln (to rumble).
A couple of useful animal-related terms are worth mentioning: CRABBY and RATTY. Crabby first turns up in the eighteenth century, with Thomas Paine’s 1776 pamphlet Common Sense providing an early example: ‘The narrow and crabby spirit of a despairing political party.’ Quite how crabs came to be associated with a wayward or perversely grumpy spirit is difficult to say, but it might be relevant that ‘crabbed’, a related term, denotes a gnarled and uneven surface, much like the hard shell of the crustacean.
As for ratty, that’s only been a colloquial term for ‘irritated’ or ‘cross’ since the early twentieth century, but since rats have long been associated with miserable or wretched living conditions, it’s not hard to see how the word came to be used for a miserable outlook or state of mind.
CRANKY, meanwhile, was a nineteenth-century English dialect term, especially in the north and the midlands, denoting a wayward or short-tempered person.
TESTY is from the Old Norman teste for ‘head’ (compare the modern French tête), and so the word meant ‘headstrong’ but also ‘prone to becoming irritated by small annoyances’. The similar-sounding word TETCHY is of altogether more uncertain origins, but can be found in Shakespeare and denotes someone who is quick to take offence at things.
CROTCHETY is a rarer British word, attested from the nineteenth century, and derived from crotchet, a whimsical or perverse fancy; so someone who is crotchety is perversely annoyed or irritated by small and surprising things. GROUCHY, conversely, is an American term that first turns up in the late nineteenth century; it appears to be distantly related to the word grudge.
CANTANKEROUS is a rather spectacular word to describe someone grumpy or ill-tempered, although its origins are unclear. It’s been around since at least the eighteenth century and according to Francis Grose, who compiled a marvellous book by the name of A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, may have begun as a Wiltshire dialect word.
PEEVISH, PETULANT, and QUERULOUS all similarly relate to an IRRITABLE or IRASCIBLE mood bordering on the perverse. GRUFF, SOUR, PRICKLY, HUFFY, and TOUCHY also convey this mood, as does SNAPPISH.
SULLEN and SULKY are both adjectives which describe someone of a gloomy or moody disposition: in other words, they’re not so much quick-tempered or irritable as just generally a bit miserable.
A series of temper-related compound terms can also be used synonymously to mean ‘grumpy’ or something very similar: there are HOT-TEMPERED, SHORT-TEMPERED, and ILL-TEMPERED and the expression OUT OF HUMOUR, which goes back to the Early Modern theory of the four humours (which needed to be in perfect balance for somebody to be mentally and physically well).
There really are a lot of different ways of describing grumpiness. They’re the most common synonyms; but there are other useful, if rarer, words which describe a similar state. MATUTOLYPEA is a useful word describing a state of grumpiness first thing in the morning. If someone is IRACUND, they’re easily provoked or short-tempered. MUMPISH means ‘sullen or sulky’ while CREPEHANGER is a rather glorious term for a gloomy person or a pessimist.
ANAUTARCHIA, meanwhile, means perpetual unhappiness, and a SMELLFUNGUS is a grump who is always finding fault with things.
Perhaps some of these useful terms are due a revival?