Q From David Weiser, Washington DC: What is the origin of mooch and mooching? My understanding is that a mooch is similar to a freerider; a person who uses another’s belongings or services without paying.
A That’s a common American sense, as in Cab Calloway’s famous song about Minnie the Moocher (“Folks, now here’s the story ’bout Minnie the Moocher, She was a red-hot hootchie-cootcher”). But there are several others. For example, the one that comes to mind at once for me, the most common British or Australian one, is the idea of loitering about in a bored or listless way: “He did nothing but mooch about the house, doing nothing and getting in the way”.
It’s actually a most interesting word, one which has been around on the margins of the language since the fifteenth century with a set of meanings, none of them pleasant. In its earliest days, to mooch meant to pretend poverty or act the miser. That may come from an even earlier word, mitch, which by then had been in existence for a couple of centuries with a similar meaning. The latter is believed to derive from the Old French muchier or mucier, which meant to hide, or more pejoratively, to skulk or lurk. Both mitch and mooch survived in several senses in local dialects in Britain for centuries, with the latter becoming by far the better known.
Mooch could variously mean to play truant (in particular to pick blackberries, for some unknown reason), to “loaf, skulk, sneak, or loiter” as the OED puts it, or to steal or pilfer. In the 1850s, it look on the sense you mention — to sponge on others, to borrow money or cadge things, or to slip away and let others pay for your entertainment. This is clearly where the modern American sense that you quote comes from.
But it has had other senses in North America, among them to troll for fish, especially on the West Coast. In the 1920s, it was a slang term among gamblers or on fairgrounds for a sucker or easy mark. In the 1940s-50s, the noun could also refer to a drug addict, so to be on the mooch was to be addicted and a mooch pusher was a drug dealer.