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No Subject is Too Petty for an Etymologist, Or, Pets from North to South

By Anatoly Liberman

Some of our best-known words are fairly recent in English. I am sure petting existed before the 16th century, and, more to the point, people had pets from early on, but the occurrence of the noun pet in English books does not antedate 1508. It surfaced in texts in two meanings: “a favorite domestic animal” and “a spoiled child.” The OED says (with the abbreviations expanded and one adjective added): “Originally Scottish and northern English; of unknown origin. Irish peat and [Scottish] Gaelic peata are northern English.” Skeat, although after a good deal of hesitation he repeated the verdict “of unknown origin,” was “of opinion,” as they said in the 19th century, that pet might have come to English from French: “perhaps from Old French peti, short for petit, small.”

If the OED refuses to commit itself to an etymology, the word’s fate is sealed: few will dare to cross Murray and Bradley’s path. Below I will touch on two of my favorite (pet) themes. The first concerns the state of the art. The main work on the OED had been completed by World War I. The last edition of Skeat’s etymological dictionary appeared in 1910. Since that time only Ernest Weekley has brought out a partly original dictionary of English etymology (1921). All the others only repackaged the information in the OED, with an occasional nod to Skeat. Some progress can be seen in the treatment of later words: inasmuch as the OED and Skeat did not include them, their origin had to be investigated. But thousands of articles and books, some of them excellent, testify to the unending attempts to answer questions about the history of the early English vocabulary. Such attempts did not stop in the first quarter of the 20th century. But lexicographers are usually unaware of them. As a result, our etymological dictionaries froze at the stage reached by roughly 1910. Two streams—of special publications and of dictionaries—do not meet. Needless to say, popular books provide the same, by now trivial, information. The gruel (gruel, it will be remembered, is the food on which Oliver Twist was brought up) is getting thinner and thinner.

In 1926 Thomas F. O’Rahilly proved beyond what is called reasonable doubt that Irish and Scottish Gaelic had not borrowed peata and peat from English; the borrowing went in the opposite direction. A year later, Joseph Vendryes, a great specialist in the history of the Celtic languages, expressed his agreement with O’Rahilly but modified part of his etymology. In 1950, Leo Spitzer published a major study of the word pet, a circumstance that will allow me to make my second point. Spitzer was not versed in Celtology but felt at home in all the Romance languages. As could be expected, he supported Skeat and traced pet to French. It is instructive to observe how much in our conclusions depends on our limitations. Since etymology is a game of probabilities, one often has to reckon with several equally appealing conjectures. All of us look around and try to be objective but feel safe only on familiar ground.

Nothing is easier than to condemn other people’s ignorance. Spitzer did not read the articles by O’Rahilly and Vendryes (too bad). The post-World War II lexicographers did not read even Spitzer, whose work appeared in the most visible American linguistic journal (Language). This is sad, but let us look at such matters from a practical point of view. A lexicographer deals with an inhuman amount of material and works against inhuman deadlines. The only way to get the desired information is through bibliographies, and indeed, a bibliographer on the staff of a good dictionary (let us assume that such a person exists) could have discovered Spitzer’s article easily because it has an ideal title, namely “On the Etymology of pet.” However, as noted, Spitzer missed the explanations of his predecessors, so that in his footnotes our bibliographer would not have found the needed references. Contrary to Spitzer, O’Rahilly gave his article the worst title possible (“Etymological Notes”), and Vendryes, who wrote in French, called his response: “Irl. peta (petta) ‘apprivoisé’.” In bibliographies, naturally, it appeared in the section “Irish.” (Let us not forget that after retrieving the articles somebody would have been expected to spend several hours reading them and evaluating the authors’ conclusions.) I know about the existence of those publications because for over twenty years my team and I have been putting together an all-encompassing bibliography of English etymology. We have opened not only every bibliography available but also every volume of practically all philological journals and popular magazines in twenty odd languages for nearly three centuries, and still, since this work continues and my database grows at the rate of about 500 items a year, I keep running into articles that I should have used in my works already published. Such discoveries are constant. Those who have read my previous “Gleanings” may remember the story about how a colleague called my attention to an etymology offered in 1697 (I thought I was the first to advance it). And yet the fact remains that the etymologies in our dictionaries are hopelessly outdated.

So is the origin of pet known? I will give my usual answer: “Partly.” To begin with, since the Celtic words are not borrowings from English, O’Rahilly must have been right (he traced pet to Scottish Gaelic). In ancient Ireland, the custom of having pet animals was general, and among the creatures kept for amusement we find hawks, hens, and herons. For a long time peata referred only to them. The sense “a pampered person” appeared late in Irish. Celtic lost initial p– in the prehistoric period. This is why, for example, the Old Irish cognate of Latin plenus “full” begins with l, but p was added in many words due to some phonetic changes. The presence of p– in peata deceived the editors of the OED into believing that the word could not be native. O’Rahilly and Vendryes disagreed only over the etymon of peata in Celtic, not over its antiquity.

In addition to pet “a home animal; a spoiled child,” Engl. pet has been recorded in two more meanings: “a fit of peevishness” (not related to petulant!), now obsolete or obsolescent, and “a fart” (the latter attested only once, in 1596). Pet “fart” is from Latin (peditum), via Old French (pet). Spitzer believed that all three meanings had the same origin as pet “breaking wind.” He cited numerous examples of scatological words used as terms of endearment, and to his list I can add German Pimpf “a little boy” (originally “a little fart”), an almost certain cognate of Engl. pimp (long ago I devoted a post to pimp ~ Pimpf, and see a more detailed entry on them in my dictionary). But despite a wealth of circumstantial evidence, Spitzer could not find a single certain instance of French pet meaning “child,” let alone “animal.” Nor did he do justice to Engl. peat (distinct from “turf”), now archaic, but recorded in the OED with the following senses: “a girl; a woman = a pet of a woman; a term of obloquy for a woman, especially with reference to a proud woman; applied as a term of dislike to a man; formerly a lawyer, supposed to be under peculiar patronage of a judge.” The spelling peat is so reminiscent of the Scottish Gaelic word that its connection with pet can be taken for granted.

Not being a Celtic scholar, I can only risk a few tentative suggestions. The Scottish Gaelic origin of Engl. pet seems to be probable. But I wonder whether O’Rahilly and Vendryes found the true source of the Celtic word. As early as 775, the ancestor of French petit “small” (pitito) emerged in a text. Old Irish pettai “pet animals” may be as old as the 7th century. By a curious coincidence, the origin of French petit is also unknown; the Modern French reflex (continuation) of the Latin word is peu. There is a strong sound symbolic value in words like pet, petit, and so forth. In 1688, put or putt “blockhead” appeared in English; country put meant “silly, shallow-pated fellow” (a definition from 1700). The diminutive of Latin puer “boy” was puteus. French putain “whore” and its Spanish congener are known so widely that they probably do not need a gloss.

It is as though little words like petpitput have been around forever and used for both caressing and demeaning people. Engl. peat, cited above, can be applied to girls, women, and men. Engl. pet refers to animals and spoiled (pampered) children. We can hardly decide which meaning was original. It is unclear whether there even was a “first” meaning. Such formations are partly sound symbolic, partly sound imitative (like the verbs put and pat) and “mate” easily with other similar monosyllabic words (for example with those meaning “fart”). I will leave aside the origin of pet “a fit of peevishness,” but I suspect that Celtic peat belongs to that litter. The concept of affinity does not apply to such groups. Its members resemble the charges of an orphanage rather than siblings: they wear the same uniform and have similar habits but are not related; sometimes nothing can be known about their parents. In their interaction, borrowing is also hard to establish, but since Engl. pet was recorded considerably later than its Celtic twin, it does not seem to be native. So what would I write about pet in an etymological dictionary? “Most probably from Scottish Gaelic. One of many words of similar meaning and structure recorded in various old and modern European languages.”

Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. mike

    This was really interesting. I always find word origins fascinating. Thanks!

  2. Walter Turner

    I am surprised not to see the German words petze (female dog), petzen (school talk for betray, “tell on” another) and pfetzen (pinch, originally tickle) mentioned, if only to be dismissed. Pfetzen has all the right sounds, and initial p in the others instead of pf could just mean the English and German words didn’t share a Germanic origin. After all, the dog may be a pet, pets are often tickled, and, to be serious for a moment, it is the teacher’s pet who tattles.

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