The Joy of Curmudgeon-hood

Margaret Rutherford

Yesterday I was heading over to Trader Joe’s to buy one of those massive chocolate bars with the whole hazelnuts.

There are lots of empty parking places, but this guy in a van in front of me decides he HAS to have this one, particular spot that he’s already driven completely past, and he starts backing up right into me as if I’m not even there. I move a little. He keeps backing. Finally he’s about to run into me, so I tap my horn. He leans out of his window and yells, “Back the **** up!”

I get out of his way as best I can, given the crowd of cars building up behind us. Mr. Van Guy gets his spot. My whole body is shaking, but I do nothing.

I had lots of ambitions when I was young. I wanted to be a great Shakespearean actor. Also a rock star. Before that I wanted to be a mail carrier.

Now, I realize, my yearnings have changed. I want to be acurmudgeon.

A real curmudgeon wouldn’t have let Mr. Van Guy push him around. He’d never doubt his own right to take up space in a public parking lot. If there was window-to-window shouting going on, he’d give better than he got. A curmudgeon is nothing like a bitch or a shrew, or any of those shrill feminine complainers. He is self-sufficient, grounded in an unassailable conviction of his own rightness. He probably subscribes to Indignation Quarterly.

The problem is, women can’t be curmudgeons. Curmudgeons are always male. Like geezers and dudes.

Guys used to be exclusively male. Now, at least in the US, we’re free to address a group of women as “you guys”. (I tried this once in Scotland and met with a torrent of startled giggles.) We still can’t refer to an individual female as a “guy”, but the word is moving toward gender neutrality. Could we start a movement to re-gender curmudgeon? That splendid word, with its suggestion of bludgeoning in high dudgeon?

Everything we say to each other—whether in writing or in person—includes a property that linguists call indexicality. Indexing means pointing—that is, a suggestion of some social meaning that doesn’t always follow logically from the words themselves, but that is nevertheless perceived loud and clear. Like the word curmudgeon indexes “elderly maleness”. Like raising your voice? at the end of a phrase? indexes “young femaleness”. It’s not a rational thing, but we all do it, all the time.

On the bright side, I’m perfectly free to be an old bat. Bats are always female, oddly. The word suggests voluminous capes, probably tweed. Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Marple was a shining role model for aspiring old bats. The word indexes self-sufficiency, nosiness, and a refreshing lack of concern with one’s own sexual attractiveness.

Still I yearn for official curmudgeonhood. I want to be propelled through airports in a bath chair, laying about me with my walking stick as I go. I want to write fiercely irritable letters to the Times, complaining about taxes and weather and the flimsiness of modern paper napkins.

I hereby declare the existence of female curmudgeons. Now move aside, damnit.

About the author: You can find Freya on Open Salon, where she blogs about effective writing and speech, and the odd byways of human communication. Looking for a supportive editor to help with your writing project? Visit Freya at for a free consult. The Joy of Curmudgeon-hood was first published on May 4.  


  1. Sanjina /

    Nice article – perhaps more female curmudgeons are just what is needed in this world.

  2. Sharon Stern /

    I was looking for a word for a female curmudgeon, & I came across your article. While I have often been called a “old bat”, I feel “cantankerous” is a better descriptive term for my “elderly presence” in this world.

Leave a Reply