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Curmudgeons and Proper Curmudgeonly Behavior

Karen is privileged to know some impressive curmudgeons. She is still considering whether to become a battleaxe or an old biddy.

Curmudgeonry: A Noble Ambition

I thought I should take a break from more serious topics to explain curmudgeons, curmudgeonly behavior, and curmudgeonry in general. Many people seem to think curmudgeons just happen and do not realize there are people who want to be, and even aspire to be, curmudgeons.

This article grew from a conversation I had with a college friend who aspired to be a curmudgeon. I thought it was a wonderful ambition, but you just can't do it when you're twenty. At forty, you might possibly be able to convince small kids you are a curmudgeon, since to anyone under 10, anyone over 30 is ancient.

Sketch of Proper Curmudgeonry

What is a Curmudgeon

A curmudgeon is the antithesis of femininity. That does not mean the curmudgeon is the ultimate man, it just means the qualities of a very feminine woman - delicacy, prettiness, warmth, softness, sweetness, sparkle - pretty well define what a curmudgeon is not.

A curmudgeon is that elderly man in the neighborhood with enough strength and spirit left to terrify children caught trespassing or maybe even trick-or-treating. Humanity is of little or no interest to a curmudgeon; what he most desires from others is that they would leave him alone. He will probably do his best to help everyone wish to leave him alone, by being moderately repellent to the eye, ear, and nose. But only moderately. He is not particularly trying to offend people, he just sees no point in pleasing them.

Note that a curmudgeon is not a crackpot. Or rather, not all crackpots are curmudgeons, and not all curmudgeons are crackpots. But probably all crackpots and curmudgeons admire each other.

In literature and movies, curmudgeons are the ones taught, usually by a sweet young child, to be friendly and love life. It makes a nice story, and it loses you your curmudgeon license. The perfect example of a curmudgeon is of course Ebenezer Scrooge (note the wonderfully odd-sounding, old-fashioned name with no hint of delicacy to it). Scrooge would be a synonym for "curmudgeon" if it weren't for the end of the story, which just ruins the whole thing. Curmudgeons can go to church on Christmas, worship, and even sing (preferably off-key) but they do not "keep Christmas". That would imply laughter, joyfulness, and all sorts of things like fun. Fun is unproductive.

Detail of Curmudgeonly Hairstyle


What isn't a Curmudgeon

Anyone personable, expressive, relational, or stylish is not a curmudgeon. A hail-fellow-well-met attitude is simply out of the question. Interior decorators, counselors, artists, politicians, motivational speakers, and teambuilders would have to make major changes in their outlook to ever aspire to curmudgeonry.

Extroverts will probably never make it as a curmudgeon. A football player might grow up to be a curmudgeon, but only after he gets over having to be part of a team. Curmudgeons are not team players, bridge-builders, or compromisers.

Curmudgeons do not write books without lots of technical diagrams. A curmudgeon might under some circumstances play a trumpet or tuba, but never a flute. An accordion or flugelhorn would be best.

You might be surprised how possible it is for English teachers, linguists, and composers to become curmudgeons - remember Beethoven. It's possible to love words and music without using them to communicate and relate.


Note the notable eyebrows, and how they are subtly mismatched.

Note the notable eyebrows, and how they are subtly mismatched.

Curmudgeonly Communication

There isn't any. You cannot be a curmudgeon and communicate. It is fine to talk; talk all you want as long as it is at great length and in extreme detail on a subject everyone else ought to care about and doesn't, such as the composition of moon rocks, why the economy resembles Genghis Khan's empire, or the current state of your sinuses. You should not ask questions, except for rhetorical ones. Questions imply you want someone else's input.

Note that communication has to do with people understanding you and coming back with ideas of their own. Remember, it doesn't matter if people understand you. They ought to, and if they don't, it's their own fault. But you don't need their ideas, because they are young and foolish and there is no point in even talking about what they call ideas until they grow up.

Anybody who is always urging you to communicate is obviously someone who hasn't grown up.

Curmudgeonly Expressions

A curmudgeon should either be capable of saying "Harrumph", "Humph", or "Hmmf" convincingly. How do you know if you are convincing? When you say it, people should look taken aback or even offended. They should not be able to think of anything to say in return.

If you can't harrumph convincingly, it is almost as good to just look as if you could. Do not be distracted by anyone who tells you not to have that expression because your face might freeze that way. The whole point of being a curmudgeon is to appear semi-petrified. "Crusty" is a term often applied to curmudgeons, for good reason. Aim for tough, unpalatable, and possibly a bit stale.

Suitable Fit for Curmudgeon Clothing


What Curmudgeons Wear

Curmudgeons wear anything they want to, as long as it doesn't doesn't convey the idea of modernity and style. There are many ways to accomplish this. The simplest one is avoiding clothes that fit and preferring clothes with stains. Another way is to pick a historical period and wear only clothes of that period. This also gives you the chance to hold forth to anyone who accidentally asks, on why that historical period was better than this one.

Ripped and torn clothing is not so good for curmudgeons, since that is the current style. Rips imply carelessness. If you have a tear in your clothing that clearly has a purpose (such as, it's actually a bullet hole from the Spanish-American war), that will work.

A cane is a suitable accessory for a curmudgeon, as long as it looks practical and cheap. There are some stylish canes out there nowadays that would hardly even provide a good thrashing to whippersnappers.

It is useful for curmudgeons not to hear too well, especially when people are talking foolishness. Curmudgeons do not wear hearing aids. To whom would they listen? Oh, and the female equivalent of a curmudgeon would use "whom", and correctly too, but curmudgeons use "ain't".

Suitable Careers for Curmudgeons

Nobody should be quite sure what a curmudgeon does for a living. That means either nobody understands the work (certain types of physics could fit) or everybody knows what you do, but nobody knows why anyone would pay you for it.

The ideal curmudgeon is retired. If that is not possible, almost-penniless unemployment is pretty good. Being an engineer, accountant, general, or something like that, would not be too bad. Really, anything will work if it is not touchy-feely or likely to spread happiness and joy. Boot camp drill instructors would be perfect curmudgeons except that they are almost always too young.

Curmudgeons of History and Literature

Ebenezer Scrooge

Eeyore (according to A. A. Milne, not necessarily Disney...but demonstrating that the right attitude can make a curmudgeon even out of something as cute as a stuffed animal)

Beethoven (so keep in mind that today's curmudgeon could be considered a genius by a later generation who doesn't actually have to know him in person - and that later generation will consider today's generation unintelligent and boorish for having disliked the curmudgeon!)

George Patton (at least as played in Patton by George C. Scott)

Possibly Columbus, at least until he got popular

Maybe Vince Lombardi ("Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" is a rather curmudgeonly statement)

Mr. Wilson in "Dennis the Menace", as a commenter helpfully pointed out

It is hard making this list without including several friends of mine who are not known to history, or much of anyone else, yet. So let's move on to:

Not Curmudgeons

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (many curmudgeonly characteristics, but having had 2 loving wives and 11 children sort of disqualifies him)

Stalin (showed interest in people and people loved him, even though he was busy having them shot at the time)

Abraham Lincoln (some good curmudgeonly characteristics, but again enjoyed his wife and children way too much)

May a curmudgeon marry?

If a curmudgeon wanted to get married, he certainly wouldn't ask whether he "may".

A bachelor is a promising start to a curmudgeon. You could get there from here. A curmudgeon is to a bachelor as sharp Cheddar is to milk. But as long as a bachelor is trying to please women, he cannot fully engage in these anti-feminine behaviors and may never ripen into a proper curmudgeon. The best policy for curmudgeons with women is distant and awkward courtesy. Unfortunately, sometimes women find this charming. Rudeness is safer, though it must be an impersonal rudeness - a curmudgeon is never personal, even in insults.

You would think women would hate curmudgeons. Some do, but as mentioned, some find them charming, and most women look at a curmudgeon as a man looks at a dilapidated house: a perfect candidate for a construction project.

It is possible for a curmudgeon to marry, but it does raise questions of whether he is hard enough to live with, if someone is actually putting up with him. If the wife seems surly, bitter, and not inclined to talk with him, he is probably doing well enough. If the wife is apparently quite happy with him, she'd better also be apparently someone who can go through life without ever hearing romantic talk.

Many curmudgeons got that way by becoming widowers, so a happily married man can always aspire to curmudgeonliness by outliving his wife. Then the proper state of squalor about the house can be achieved, and it is also easy to be impersonally rude to all those other women who think they could make him happy,

Pets for Curmudgeons

It should be obvious by now that the only proper pet for a curmudgeon is a dog, and not a poodle named Frou Frou. A dog is allowed to love a curmudgeon, because dogs are known for being devoted to people nobody else can stand. A German Shepherd would be appropriate, or maybe a bulldog. The point to remember is the dog should contribute to, rather than distract from, the curmudgeon's overall impression of disagreeability. If the dog itself is too scary, people will pay attention to the dog rather than the owner.

Suitable Curmudgeon Pet

A curmudgeonly cur, appearing potentially but not personally vicious.

A curmudgeonly cur, appearing potentially but not personally vicious.

Attending Social Events as a Curmudgeon

Sometimes even curmudgeons are made to be social, at weddings and Christmas parties and things like that where everyone is invited and not showing up would associate you with some foolish young people who are slackers.

Remember, nobody can make you be social, the worst they can do is make you show up. After that, you can always stand or sit in a corner by yourself and tell everyone who comes near why they should learn Latin. Or just create an unoccupied space around you by the sheer force of your personality, or possibly your smell since, as everyone in medieval times knew, baths are unhealthy.

Female Counterparts to Curmudgeons

I'm sorry, you just cannot be a curmudgeon and be female. Proper curmudgeonly behavior fits in well with what a typical man is inclined to do, and not with what a typical woman is inclined to do (such as talk, write, or otherwise communicate.) There are maybe some female equivalents for curmudgeons, but after all, how many women aspire to beetling eyebrows and hair growing out of their ears? So don't get offended.

The female equivalent is pretty much any bossy, somewhat elderly woman, who talks a lot, but only to explain her opinions and order people around, not to communicate. She could be fashionable, as long as the fashion is from at least 40 years ago. Like a curmudgeon, the female equivalent can even be rather lovable, and essential to the character of the neighborhood. One example would be the general's housekeeper in the old movie "White Christmas".

Much as "spinster" should be equivalent to but ends up less complimentary than "bachelor", the terms for the female counterpart of a curmudgeon are old-fashioned and rather unpleasant, words like "battleaxe", "old biddy", and "harridan". This is not because people are inherently prejudiced against women; it is because people are inherently prejudiced against being told what to do, and curmudgeons have more of a "take-it-or-leave-it" attitude when they tell people what to do.

Note that female equivalents to curmudgeons and curmudgeons themselves are not likely to be married to each other. They might quietly admire each other, and publicly insult each other, but they know each other's qualities too well to have any intention of living with each other.

Men, Women, and Curmudgeons

This table shows why there is unlikely to be a feminist movement demanding equal rights in curmudgeonry for women.

Characteristics:Disfavors CommunicationGruffHair in Ears, Not on HeadElderlySocial Liability


Not at all, why would you think a thing like that? Is it a problem? Maybe we should discuss it over tea.

Maybe, but will get mad if you put it that way.

If so, will pay $$$ to hide it

Not about to admit it even if obvious

Will be depressed for months if you say so



Could be

Would rather you not point it out

Would rather you not point it out

Not overly concerned

Bachelor (ladies' man type)


Probably tries not to be

If so, will pay $ to hide it

Will admit it for purposes of getting out of something

Concerned if women think it's a problem







The Path to Curmudgeonry

Perhaps you, like my friend in college, aspire to curmudgeonry. The main thing you have to do is get old enough, but here are some things to practice along the way.

  1. Practice keeping a straight face whenever a joke is told.
  2. Cramp your style. You should never be footloose and fancy-free, nor walk with a swing or a spring in your step.
  3. Start now on off-putting hairstyles, in case you never achieve baldness.
  4. Try chewing on every word before you actually say it. Even if you don't get the right effect at first, it will at least look strange.
  5. See if you can grow a suitably bushy mustache yet. Even an unkempt beard takes away from the effect, though, so keep the chin down to stubble.
  6. Smoke, sing from the wrong part of your throat, and seek out other such strategies to develop a raspy voice.
  7. Listen to music (opera, polka, or anything else old enough to be unpopular) at excessive levels to develop a hearing loss. Playing the Valkyrie theme loud enough to be heard all over the neighborhood will be good for your reputation.
  8. Attend a finishing school to learn how to be excruciatingly polite and have proper timing, which for a curmudgeon means being slightly off. Anyone trying to shake your hand should miss it, anyone trying to hug you should meet your shoulder instead.

Best wishes in your endeavor; remember the tradition you uphold as a curmudgeon is an ancient and proud one.