Words for Sellers and Makers

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Several venerable words serve as the base for compounds that refer to people who make or sell things: monger, smith, and wright. Here’s a review of those compounds.

Monger, stemming from Old English mangere, meaning “broker,” “merchant,” or “trader,” has been used since medieval times, though for hundreds of years, thanks to the low social status of peddlers, compounds based on this term have had an unsavory connotation.

A costermonger sells apples and, by extension, any wares, from a cart; coster comes from Anglo-French or Old French and denotes a particular type of apple with ribs, protuberances (similar to those on a Red Delicious apple. A fishmonger is a seller of seafood, and an ironmonger hawks metal wares. Flæscmangere (“fleshmonger,” referring to a butcher) did not survive Old English.

The term whoremonger was coined to refer to someone who sells sex—a pimp—although it later extended to anyone who purchases the services of prostitutes or otherwise consorts with them. The root has also been associated with people who peddle emotions and ideas: A fablemonger is a liar, a fearmonger or scaremonger is someone who foments anxiety, a gossipmonger spreads rumors or other tidbits about mutual associates, a hatemonger encourages animosity, and a warmonger agitates for bellicose behavior.

In Old English, smith referred to a worker in metal, whether someone who crafted practical objects or jewelry; it might originally have even applied to carpenters and craftsmen as well.

Most traditional -smith compounds allude directly to the metal worked: goldsmith, silversmith, and tinsmith are transparent, but a whitesmith dealt with pewter, and blacksmith probably referred to the soot and grime associated with working iron and various combinations of it and other alloys; blacksmiths, as the most common of ironworkers, were often referred to simply as smiths. Weaponmakers were represented by the now-obsolete term bladesmith and the later construction gunsmith. Someone who made locks and keys was called a locksmith; that term now refers to those who repair locks or force them open when keys go missing or break off in the lock.

The root word was later whimsically attached to tune to denote a songwriter and to word to refer to a writer.

Wright, from Old English and meaning “worker,” was applied specifically to someone who builds things; several compounds that include wright refer to vehicles or their components, including cartwright (cart probably originally referred to wickerwork, an early material used for the body of a cart, chariot, or wagon), wainwright (wain is a cognate of wagon), and wheelwright. A millwright, meanwhile, built mills and mill machinery; like locksmith, the term was later more closely associated with those who maintain equipment rather than make it. A builder of marine vessels was (and still is) called a boatwright or a shipwright.

Mason, from the Old French term masson, is represented in brickmason and stonemason. Freemason originated as a term referring to one of a traveling guild of stoneworkers; it now survives as the informal name of a fraternal society. Several theories for the origin of free compete: It may be from the French word frère, meaning “brother,” referring to the traditional fraternal nature of masons, or from the fact that they worked on free-standing stones, or because they were independent contractors.

Several of these terms survive as surnames: Smith, Mason, Boatwright, Cartwright, and Wainwright.

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2 thoughts on “Words for Sellers and Makers”

  1. Hi mark,

    Thanks very much for this wonderful piece. indeed you are a genus.

    Now I know words don’t live forever. Some words are derived from others and some words continue to change and survive leaving the rest in the dust of immortality.

    Indeed an eye opener.

    But.please a question,

    Do we have anything like weak or wimpy words? I mean, when writing, are there words that are stronger than others?

    Anyway, I ’ll share this right away.


  2. And, of course, unsolicited advice on orthoepy: — monger is pronounced MUNG-gur. Rhymes with hunger. NOT with a short O as in…um…conger eel?

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