Thursday, May 08, 2014

`A Person Who Skulks or Sneaks About'

A reader alerts me to a word he thinks I may find “useful”: micher. I didn’t know it either, nor does my spell-check software. I mistook it for Yiddish in origin and guessed it was another of that language’s many synonyms for sad sack, a feckless and ineffectual fellow. In fact, micher is rooted in Old French and related to a word copyrighted by Cab Calloway, moocher (“a low-down hoochie-coocher”). It entered English in the thirteenth century and signified “a robber, a petty thief,” the OED reports, but evolved more interestingly into “a person who skulks or sneaks about with dishonest intent; a loiterer.” Among the lesser meanings are “a person who pretends poverty; a miser” and “a truant.” The latter meaning is the one used by Falstaff in Henry IV, Part 1: “Shal the blessed sunne of heauen proue a micher, and eat black-berries?”  (This is from the great scene in the Boar’s-Head Tavern, Act II, Scene 4. Read it here.) 

Dr. Johnson is even more evocative. In his Dictionary, a micher is “a lazy loiterer, who skulks about in corners and by-places, and keeps out of sight; a hedge creeper.” Let’s follow this trail a little further. The OED describes “hedge creeper” as “obsolete,” a designation I always resent. If at least one man or woman has found a word useful at some point in history, it can’t be obsolete (except for “awesome”). Ideas and machines can be obsolete; not words or people. The OED even gives Johnson’s definition as part of its own: “`One that skulks under hedges for bad purposes’ (Johnson); a hedge-bird; a sneaking rogue.” The citations are juicy. Thomas Nashe in The Unfortunate Traveller (1594) gives us “a sweating eausdropper, a scraping hedgecreeper.” John Bunyan in Jerusalem-Sinner Saved (1688) has “These poor, lame, maimed, blind, hedge-creepers and highwaymen, must come in.” And Peter Anthony Motteux, in his translation of Rabelais (1737), offers “Rovers, Ruffian-Rogues, and Hedge-Creepers.” 

There are michers and hedge-creepers among us. Walk down the street and you’ll probably trip over one. They are not obsolete.

No comments: