Free the Word: mardy
As part of the Free the Word series, OED associate editor Eleanor Maier explores Leicester’s chosen word, which will be the subject of a poem by Toby Campion.
mardy adj. moody, sulky.
The term ‘mardy’ meaning ‘sulky, moody’ is one that most people in the south of England will be unfamiliar with. However, it is ubiquitous in the midlands and north of England. The word was originally used of children and the earliest example we have found so far is from an 1882 issue of the journal Notes and Queries:
A crosspatchy child in Nottinghamshire is called a ‘mardy child’, in the southern counties a ‘mawdy child’.
The writer then goes on to query whether it derives from the French word maldit. In fact the origin of ‘mardy’ can probably be found much closer to home. Before children were described as ‘mardy’ they were referred to as ‘marred’:
- 1620 J. Pyper tr. H. d’Urfé The History of Astrea 266 My mother bred me vp with all manner of delicatenesse, an only child, or rather a marred child.
- 1790 T. Pennant Of London 374 A marble group..with London and Commerce whimpering like two marred children.
- 1856 G. E. Jewsbury The Sorrows of Gentility II. i. 2 The grandfather gave it [ a baby] impatiently back to the nurse with the observation that ‘It was very marred’.
‘Marred’ is the past participle of the verb ‘to mar’ and we can see a similar pattern of usage in ‘spoilt’ which is the past participle of ‘to spoil’ and is also used to describe children who are overindulged and hence badly behaved.
This usage persists in the midlands and north of England, and frequently with the spelling ‘mard’ (perhaps through association with ‘mardy’ or because the perceived connection with the past participle of the verb ‘mar’ has been lost). ‘Mard’, in turn, has given rise to the compound ‘mardarse’ and a noun, as in ‘my sister has been in a right mard with me all weekend’ or ‘he’s got a proper mard on today’.
To return to ‘mardy’, in the twentieth century the referents of the adjective expanded to include not just babies and children, but anyone who was perceived to be acting like a spoilt or overindulged child. ‘Mardy’ was also used to form new nouns such as ‘mardy-bum’ (which may be familiar as the title of an Arctic Monkeys song) and ‘mardy-arse’.
Finally, like ‘mard’, ‘mardy’ has also developed a corresponding noun referring to a person’s bad mood. An early example appears in a 1968 novel, The Nightingales are Sobbing by Roy Christy: “The mardies, the mopes, the sulkies.” However, like ‘mard’, it is most often found in the phrases such as ‘to have the mardies’, ‘to get a mardy on’, and ‘to be in a mardy’.