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Fishmonger, Meet Wordmonger
The Oxford English Dictionary lists more than 306 compounds ending in the –monger suffix.
In most current uses, -monger as a suffix makes the word an insult: whoremonger, warmonger, slander-monger, flesh-monger, monger of clichés, gossip-monger. The compounds reek of depreciative dismissal and sneering contempt. “Robbie Burns was a mere ballad-monger.” But once, earlier in the history of English, monger had a neutral meaning of ‘trader’ or ‘seller,’ hence simple occupational descriptives, common at British markets, like fishmonger, hay-monger, ale-monger, cheese-monger and pear-monger.
The Fetid Joys of the Grievance-Monger
Some older –monger compounds are worth revival, for example, grievance-monger is a phrase worth recalling from the unremembered shores of the Lethean word river. It fits today’s professional protesters and injustice-collectors, the self-pitying whiners who parade at public events, their young, angry, unlived-in faces smug with the disdain common to all of history’s junior anarchists, the grievance-mongering losers who never vote, the protesters who have never tried to do anything but wail and bitch, put-upon-pie children whose sole innocent purpose is to destroy a world. As their rocks through windows and burning police cars shatter public order, so their moans pollute our civil air. The fecal joy in their animal faces as they ignite buildings and burn down peaceful assemblies tells onlookers all we need to know about these ring-nosed, buttock-tattooed scum. Seeing their own reflections in the glass shards of the windows they have just smashed reveals the origin of their brainless anger. As that supreme American essayist Gore Vidal once wrote, “It is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in the mirror.”
I happened upon the noun fellmonger recently as I began to reread the English novel Lorna Doone by the Victorian lawyer and classicist, R.D. Blackmore, whose style of English, a sturdy amalgam of Shakespeare, Milton and the King James Bible, presents guidance to the modern writer about how best to embed a spine of word iron into anemic, round-shouldered prose.
There is still a guild in England entitled The Fellmongers Company of Richmond in Yorkshire, an ancient craft and trading organization which had its origin in the Middle Ages and was an early trade union, originally made up of skinners and glovers. A fellmonger is a dealer in fells or sheepskins, who separates the wool from the pelts.
Fellmonger at work portioning sheep skins
Among the oldest words in English, fell is a common Teutonic root whose prime meaning is ‘the skin of an animal.’ In the novel Lorna Doone, the fellmonger sells sheepskins. The Indo-European etymon was perhaps *pelno ‘animal skin’ making fell cognate with Latin pellis ‘skin’ and Greek πέλλα pella. Our English word pelt also may be related, through the syncopation of an Anglo-Norman diminutive form like pelette or pellette ‘little skin, foreskin.’
Syncopation or syncope in linguistics is the deletion of phonemes from a word or phrase. Wanna is a sycopated form of want to; don’t is syncope for do not. Using o’er in poetic English instead of over is syncope. Although syncope usualy describes the loss of unstressed vowels, it may also refer to dropped consonants.
Monger — Etymology & Semantics
By itself as a noun meaning ‘salesman,’ ‘dealer,’ ‘trader’ or ‘seller of goods,’ mangere existed in Old English and had acquired its /o/ by the time of Middle English as mongere.
Old English is the earliest form of our tongue spoken and written by the Anglo-Saxons between about 450 CE and 1050 CE. Middle English is a term coined by linguists to describe our language from the late 11th century and to about 1470 CE, when Chancery Standard, a form of London legal English, began to become widespread through the introduction in England of William Caxton’s printing press in the late 1470s.
Mongere had early cousins all over northern Europe, such as mangari in Old High German and mangari in Old Icelandic. They all derive from mango, mangonis, a Latin word borrowed very early into northern European languages. Compare the German verb mangan ‘to trade goods’ or the Spanish mangon and mangonear.
Small Class of Latin Agent Nouns
In Latin, mango belongs to a small group of agent nouns that end in /o/. Caupo is a Latin word for an innkeeper or tavern-owner. Gero is Latin for a porter or carrier of loads on his back. The standard agent noun suffix in Latin is –or or –ator, seen in agent nouns like emptor ‘buyer,’ known to us in the Latin phrase caveat emptor ‘let the buyer beware.’ The longer agent noun suffix is seen in the Roman word gladiator, literally ‘one who carries and fights with a gladius.’ A gladius was a small Roman sword. There is plant whose slender leaves reminded an early naming botanist of the blade of a small sword or gladiolus.
In this Roman fresco, a gladiator holds up a gladius or short sword.
Watch That Specificity!
Latin abhors semantic specificity, in general. All that means is this: Latin has a small vocabulary; therefore single Latin words must bear many different shades of meaning. So, generally, Latin nouns have many meanings rather than one specific one. But mango is an example of an agent noun that did develop a quite specific meaning. There are several Latin words that mean trader, seller or agent. The more common word in Latin for salesman was mercator, related to our current words merchant and merchandise. But mango came to mean a specific type of salesman, a slave trader, a dealer who bought up at bargain prices injured or malnourished slaves, fed them and brought them back to a reasonably robust health, so the mango could resell the poor wretches for a hefty profit. A mango refurbished slaves and some buffed, repainted and repolished shoddy merchandise so it too could be sold at a pleasant profit. A mango might put a new glaze on old pottery and render the wares more easily saleable. Some etymologists use that fact to suggest the Romans may have borrowed their word mango, mangonis directly from classical Greek, where they posit an unattested noun like *mangano, manganonis from a real Greek noun μάγγανον mánganon ‘deception, trickery, juggling, contrivance, means of enchantment.’ Note that a vowel followed by a doubled gamma /γγ/ in Greek usually indicated a nasal syllable. The Greek term from which English gets its word angel was aggelos 'messenger', pronounced 'angelos.' Angels are messengers of a god, among their other winged duties.
Roman domestic slaves depicted in a mosaic as jauntier than they perhaps were in their real enslaved life.
Mango is possibly cognate with the Late Latin military word manganum ‘ballista’ from Greek manganon ‘philter, ballista,’ from Greek manganeuein ‘to deceive,’ cognate with Middle Irish meng ‘deception,’ Tocharian A mank ‘guilt’, Sanskrit mañju beautiful; basic Indian meaning: to beautify with a derogatory sense, that is, to tart up, to dress up something dowdy to make it appear beautiful.
Some of these surnames may derive from mango: Mangone, Mangan, Mangano, Manges Mangault and Mangold.
To show how early in English the word monger appeared, we can quote from the Latin in a Royal Charter of King Aethelwulf: unum merkatorem quem eam lingua nostra mangere nominamus ‘a seller whom we now call in our language a mangere [monger].’ Aethelwulf was King of Wessex from 839 to 856 CE.
To monger can be used as a verb deprecating the thing sold or the seller. Here is a sentence from one of my blog essays: “President George W. Bush was always mongering his vulgar religion, wearing his soul on his sleeve, if it would earn him a few extra votes from the low-browed louts of American evangelism.” You may ask, has Casselman no shame, quoting himself? Answer? None.
We’ll conclude with a couple of mongers you may not know.
1. A costermonger is a term still used in London, England to name a person who sells fruits and vegetables from a street cart or barrow. Costermonger originally meant apple-seller and the word referred to one variety of large apple, a costard, an English apple with prominent costes or ribs (French coste ‘rib’). London’s famous and colorful Pearly Kings & Queens Guild evolved out of costermongers’ associations. It’s a fascinating history worth reading about elswhere on the internet.
Some of London's Pearly Kings, Queens & Little Pearls
2. “The clothes look straight off a tat-monger’s street barrow.” A nice British coinage by J. Gash in Lies of Fair Ladies (1993).
3. A doom-monger peddles end-of-life-on-earth horror stories for the delectation of the terminally depressed and the professionally pessimistic.
That, friendly readers all, shall suffice for today, lest I dwindle into a mere monger-monger.
copyright © 2012 William Gordon Casselman
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