Thus sayeth Benjamin Hazlit to his beloved Lady Maggie (Page 152), and we suspect we know what he means, but what does OED say about the word, “cranky”?
Of capricious or wayward temper, difficult to please, cross-tempered, awkward, cross
1821 Blackwood’s Edinb. Mag. 9 82 Cranky Newport, not annoyed with νοῦς.
1841 Dickens Old Curiosity Shop i. vii. 117 That his friend appeared to be rather ‘cranky’ in point of temper.
1851 D. Jerrold St. Giles xv. 151 He got plaguy cranky of late; wouldn’t come down with the money.
This meaning of the word derives from the Dutch and German “krank” meaning sick, but an English term meaning crooked, ill fitting, or likely to capsize, may also have contributed to the word’s provenance.
The earliest date given for Hazlit’s meaning of the word is listed as 1821, so why did I let Himself say this to Maggie several years earlier? Two reasons: First, words are usually in spoken usage before they show up in print. OED can only comb surviving documents for occurrences of any given word, and most documents from 1817 did not, after all survive. It’s entirely possible the word was used even in print to mean “out of sorts” earlier than 1821, and OED did not find that document.
The second reason I give Hazlit a few years’ leeway with his word choice is because it’s such a terrific word–apt, not unkind, a little presumptuous, and yet suggestive of some affection between the speaker and the cranky lady…. or maybe a lot of affection?