The sneaky, slinking roots of “mooch”

Mooch may ultimately derive from an old Indo-European root meaning “darkness” or “silence.” 

The new White House Communications Director, Anthony Scaramucci, drew many people to dictionaries last week for his distinctive surname. Scaramucci is indeed related to scaramouch, “cowardly braggart,” originating as a stock character in Italian comedy and familiar to most of us from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. As I discussed in an earlier post, the Italian scaramuccia gives English skirmish and scrimmage.

As if Scaramucci weren’t already colorful enough, Trump’s new Comms man also goes by the nickname the Mooch. Mooch, here, is taken from the pronunciation of his last name—although the word’s sense of “sponging” or “scrounging” are a bit ironic for a man who spent his career up to this point as a financier. So, where does this mooch come from, anyways?

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Under the cover of…mooch? (Pixabay)

A “misty” past

Mooch and its handful of variants are first recorded in Middle English (mowche, mucche). The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates mooch (“to be miserly, to be a hoarder, to hoard”) to 1400. A related form, to mitch (“pilfer”), is found slightly earlier in the 1390s, and its cousin mitcher (“robber, petty thief”) is the oldest it has in evidence so far, attested in 1225.

Most etymological dictionaries—with the hedging of “probably,” ever the adverbial friend to the word historian—take mooch, mitch, and mitcher back to the Old French muchier or mucier, “to hide or conceal oneself.” Then, they point vaguely to some Celtic or Germanic root, noting the likes of Old Irish muchaim (“I hide”), German muhhilari (“assassin”), and Latin muger (“cheater in games”).

A few dictionaries mention an alternative theory. Mooch, in its original sense of “to be stingy,” literally meant “to hide coins in one’s nightcap.” This approach traces the Middle English mowche/mucche to the Middle Dutch muste, “nightcap,” in turn from the Medieval Latin almucia, “nightcap,” of unknown origin. Fun, but a bit fanciful. 

Enter Anatoly Liberman, restlessly seeking certainty for the English’s language’s most elusive etymologies. Liberman thinks mooch continues a Germanic verb (via Old English *mycan, “to lie in hiding”) with those cognates we saw in Latin and Celtic. French, then, mooched muchier/mucier from Germanic. “That verb possibly had a root,” he writes, “with the initial meaning ‘darkness; mist,’ whence all kinds of underhand dealings and illegal actions.” Liberman does hold open the possibility, though, that mooch’s root is ultimately onomatopoeic, suggesting *muk/mug for “silent” or “keep mum.” “Whatever the distant origin of mooch, the verb *mycan and its cognates have been part of European slang for at least two millennia,” he observes.

But Liberman isn’t done yet. He also thinks mooch is related to some other words that have long pestered etymologists: the mugger in hugger-mugger, the –mudgeon in curmudgeon, mug as in “face,” and smuggle.

Mooching around

I’m going to have to mooch from longer explanations on this batch of words—or “play truant,” a development of mooch OED finds in the early 1600s. (The OED offers one delightfully specific sense here in regional English dialect: “To play truant in order to pick blackberries.”) This mooch would seem to yield the later mooch of “loiter,” “loaf,” and “skulk” recorded in the 1850s. Most familiar to American English speaker is mooch’s slang sense of “asking for something without paying for it,” which the OED doesn’t document until 1857.

Mitcher also has a similar soup over the years, from “robber” in the 1220s to “loiterer, skulker” in the 1500s to “miser” in the 1600s.

The exact origins of mooch are unclear, as is its evolution in English, but underlying its many forms and meanings is a sense of “sneakery,” to coin a word: sneaking away money like a miser, sneaking away from a place you’re supposed to be, sneaking around, and sneakily bumming things off friends. Mooches always have excuses—and we’ll soon see if that’s true for Scaramucci, too.

m ∫ r ∫

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