a person who sells goods, especially fruit and vegetables, from a barrow





A costermonger was originally an apple-seller, a fruiterer. The word is composed of costard, meaning a kind of apple of large size, and monger, denoting a dealer or trader in a specified commodity.

The noun costard is probably from Old French and Anglo-Norman coste, rib, from Latin costa, the apple being described as ribbed. In British Pomology (1851), the British botanist Robert Hogg (1818-97) wrote:

Costard – Coulthard, in Lancashire: Fruit, above medium size, two inches and three quarters, or three inches wide, and three inches and a quarter high; oblong, but narrowing a little towards the eye, distinctly five-sided, having five prominent ribs on the sides, which extend into the basin of the eye, and form ridges round the crown.

He added:

The Costard is one of our oldest English apples. It is mentioned under the name of “Poma Costard,” in the fruiterers’ bills of Edward the First, in 1292, at which time it was sold for a shilling a hundred. The true Costard is now rarely to be met with, but at an early period it must have been very extensively grown, for the retailers of it were called Costardmongers, an appellation now transformed into Costermongers.
Some etymologists, and Dr. Johnson among the number, consider this name to be derived from ‘Cost,’ a head; but what connection there is between either the shape or other appearance of this apple, and a head, more than any other variety, must puzzle any one to discover. Is it not more probable that it is derived from ‘Costatus’ (Anglice, ‘costate,’ or ribbed), on account of the prominent ribs or angles on its sides? I think this a much more likely derivation.

However, the word costard was applied humorously or derisively to the head. In Lesclarcissement de la langue francoyse (1530), the teacher and scholar of languages John Palsgrave (died 1554) wrote the following (the obsolete French noun coupiau means top, highest part):

I rappe or smyte. Je frappe [...]. I shall rappe you on the costarde if you playe the knave : je vous frapperay sur le coupiau de la teste si vous faictez du villayn.

In The Tragedie of King Lear (around 1605), the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) makes Edgar use costard in this figurative sense when he threatens Oswald:

(1623 edition)
Nay, come not neere th’old man: keepe out che vor ’ye, or ice try whither your Costard, or my Ballow be the harder.
(= Nay, come not near the old man: keep out I warn you, or I’ll try whether your costard or my stick be the harder.)

In Loues Labour’s lost (around 1595), by the same author, Costard is a comic rustic. As he has broken his shin, his name generates wordplay when Moth, the page, announces to Don Adriano de Armado “A wonder Master, here’s a Costard broken in a shin”.


The first known user of costermonger was Alexander Barclay (circa 1484-1552), poet and clergyman, in The fyfte eglog of Alexandre Barclay of the cytezen and vplondyshman (1518?):

I was aquaynted with many an hucster [= huckster]
With a costardemonger and with an hostler.

In the above-mentioned textbook, John Palsgrave (died 1554) wrote:

Costardmongar, fruyctier [= fruiterer].

In Actes and Monuments (1576 edition), the English religious writer John Foxe (1516-87) related how John Hooper, Anglican Bishop of Gloucester and Worcester, executed for heresy on 9th February 1555, was on 29th January taken to the Clink, “a prison not farre from the Bishop of Winchesters house”:

When it was darke, maister Hooper was led by one of þᵉ Sheriffes, with many Bylles & weapons, first through the Bishop of Winchesters house, and so ouer London Bridge, through the citie to Newgate. And by the way, some of the Sergeauntes were willed to goe before, and put out the costerdmongers candels, who vse to sit wyth light in the streates: eyther fearing (of likelyhood) that the people would haue made some attempt to haue taken hym away from them by force, if they had seene hym go to that prison: or els beyng burdened wyth an euyll conscience: they thought darknes to be a most fit season for such a busines.

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