As people get older, they are sometimes thought of as getting more cantankerous. You know, “Get off my lawn!” et cetera. With age comes crustiness, supposedly. But really, a lot of the time, it’s just that they’re not here to be supporting characters in your movie starring you. You want to be the hero of your story, the captain of the ship of your life? Great – you go do that. But you can’t anchor us to your ship. OK? We spent our youth being condescended to by older people, and maybe we’ll try not to do the same to younger people now that we’re older, but we sure as heck aren’t here to be condescended to by younger people.
This is not, of course, where the word cantankerous comes from. But there is some dispute over where the word does come from.
It’s a great word, no debate over that. It sounds like tin cans tied to a jalopy’s bumper. It has an air of crankiness, of rancour, of the irritation caused by cankers. But it also has that polysyllabic machination that shows up in words confected in America in the later 1800s. So you may be interested to learn that this word comes from England, and was first put down on paper by the early 1700s.
It seems to have come from southern England, perhaps Wiltshire (which is west of London) or Kent (which is southeast of London). We know, anyway, that by 1773 it had made its way to London, because that’s when Oliver Goldsmith used it in his wildly successful, permanently famous play She Stoops to Conquer: “There’s not a more bitter cantanckerous toad in all Christendom.”
You will notice the slight difference in spelling. That’s not surprising; spelling of 250 years ago was more fluid than now, and especially with words that were recently added from spoken vernacular. Earlier spellings include contancrous and contankerous, which, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, show some likelihood that the word traces to conteck, an old and obsolete noun and verb for ‘quarrel’ (apparently not related to contest, but possibly related to contact).
But on the other hand, it could be a blend; Wiktionary suggests that it could be from a blend of contentious and rancorous – in other words, an assemblage of sounds that seem suitable to the sense. It’s possible, indeed, that the conteck origin met with the influence of other words with related senses to make this all-dressed word for ‘cranky, surly, crabby’. We don’t really know for sure.
But, on the other hand, we don’t absolutely have to know. It would be nice, but hey, the word is here now, it’s been here for quite a while, and it suits. It wasn’t put in the language to cater to your personal glory. It’ll do what it does, and if you like that, then good. And if you don’t, how about you just move on.