Definition: Originally a street salesperson who sold apples (from a cart). Came to mean a street salesperson who sold any type of food from a cart.
Origin: Early 16th century – from coster (a variety of apple) and monger – originally meaning a person who sold small amounts of a product/a small scale sales operation.
Why this word?
A trip to the North African market city of Nabeul in Tunisia a number of years ago made quite a deep impression on me. The products for sale felt as if they were alive. Pots, cloth, silks, spices – all were thrust into my gaze accompanied by a cacophony of sales pitches and sob-stories. It was a wonderful experience and made me think on the sterile, un-engaging supermarket/warehouse type of sales arenas that we have back in the Western world.
I found that my own city – as with many others – bears the marks of the pre-industrial scale world. There are market diamonds and miniature market squares in Dublin today that go unnoticed by passers-by – scars from a noisier age.
In England and Ireland, the salespeople were called costermongers – and, indeed, they still exist in limited form around our cities nowadays – albeit in a much smaller way. Indeed, their trade name – costermonger – has vanished altogether.
How to use this word?
I think that costermonger is not one for resuscitation. Its heyday was the Victorian era. Today, it is a linguistic reminder of a world that was. The world has moved on. Today, we have ‘farmers’ markets’ and ‘craft fairs’ as we try to keep a little of the spirit of the costermonger – a person who worked for themself – alive. Who knows? Maybe in a hundred years’ time when there is no need for physical shops, someone will open a Wal-Mart to help us reconnect with the ‘simpler’ time of the early 21st century, when phrases like ‘Wal-Mart Greeter’ will have joined words like costermonger in that big ol’ shopping mall in the sky.
(Image: Moore Street, Dublin)