Look up cadger in the dictionary and you will find its primary meaning has a very negative connotation. A cadger is someone who begs or borrows without any intent to repay the debt. Drop the trailing r and you have the verb cadge. Friends who do a lot of cadging are not the kind of friends we like to have around, especially at pubs and restaurants. As with many words in English, there’s more to cadger than your “friend” who habitually passes on the bill. A cadger is also a key member of a falconry hunting party, playing a role similar to a golf caddie.
Cadge took on the meaning of begging in the early 19th century. The verb likely derived from the Middle English cadgear, which in the mid 15th century, referred to an itinerant dealer in butter, eggs, fish, or poultry who carried his items for sale on a pack-horse. A cadger was a carrier and to cadge meant to carry. Some sources say cadger may be related to the Middle English caggen, meaning to fasten or tie. The cadger had to fasten his goods to the horse’s back. Over time, beggars who may have posed as peddlers came to be called cadgers and cadging transformed from respectable trading to suspect borrowing.
In falconry, a cadge is a wooden frame, padded on its upper side to provide a perch for the birds. This allows for several birds to be transported at once to the hunting field. The person carrying the cadge is known as a cadger. It’s not clear where cadge in the falconry sense came from. It may be a variant of cage or related to the old sense of cadge meaning to carry.
The job of cadger often fell to older falconers. Some claim that this is the source for the term old codger. Other sources insist that codger is a variant of the beggar form of cadger. The words cadger and codger were interchangeable in some parts of England and used separately in others. When used as distinct terms, a cadger was a beggar and a codger was a grotesque, old eccentric.
So to be a cadger may be good or bad depending on what you’re doing: in the pub welshing off friends or carrying birds on the hunting field. I suspect the hawks think we’re all cadgers living off the bounty of their hunting skills.
Attribution: illustration from The Ornithology of Shakespeare. Critically Examined, Explained, and Illustrated. By James Edmund Harting, 1871.