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Terriers are People Too: Dog Breeds as Metaphors

By Mark Peters

My newest obsession is Terriers, an FX show created by Ted Griffin (who wrote Ocean’s Eleven) and Shawn Ryan (creator of The Shield, the best TV show ever). This show has deliciously Seinfeldian dialogue, effortless and charming acting, plus plots that are unpredictable and fresh. It’s even heart-wrenching at times, and I didn’t know I had a heart to wrench. This show is wonderful. Of course, no one is watching it.

One reason for the low ratings—suggested by everyone and their schnauzer—is that the title Terriers reveals nothing of what the show is actually about: a former cop and former criminal who have split the difference to become private investigators. That’s true. You won’t find any Wheaton terriers, Jack Russell terriers, or Yorkshire terriers—though a bulldog named Winston is a regular character. But terrier has been describing people as well as pooches for a long time, just like Doberman, pit bull, hound, and especially poodle. As quick as people are to anthropomorphize their dogs, we’re just as fond of poochopomorphizing ourselves. In honor of Terriers, here’s a look at words that have been transmitted from pooches to people.

As for terrier itself, it’s been used literally since the 1400’s and figuratively since the 1500’s. As the owner of a rat terrier, I can vouch for the OED’s definition: “A small, active, intelligent variety of dog, which pursues its quarry (the fox, badger, etc.) into its burrow or earth.” Believe me, if my dog were on the case, I would not want to be a rat, mouse, bunny, Smurf, or mole man. Metaphorical uses from 1622 (“Bonds and bills are but tarriers to catch fools.”) and 1779 (“Hunted…by the terriers of the law.”) show that the title of my new favorite show isn’t breaking any new ground. Terrier-osity, whether found in a dude or dog, is characterized by relentless determination that’s almost creepy: think of a Jack Russell who doesn’t seem aware there’s a world beyond his tennis ball.

As for a dog that is as well-established in language as it is horrible-reputation’d in general, you can’t beat the pit bull. Sarah Palin is synonymous with this breed, but she sure didn’t invent the comparison. A 1987 OED example involved a political hero of Palin’s: “President Reagan accused his Democratic critics in Congress Monday of practicing [sic] ‘pit bull economics’ that would ‘tear America’s future apart’ with reckless fiscal and trade policies.” Later citations mention “pit bull management” and “pit-bull intensity.” FYI, since I am a dog-lover, I have to share this article from Malcolm Gladwell on why pit bulls aren’t as deserving as demonization as you think. As with most dog problems, an idiotic owner is the key ingredient.

The word poodle has been prolific as poodles themselves, who seem to breed with anything that chases a squirrel, and maybe even squirrels themselves. There’s poodle-faker (an old-fashioned term for a dandy, which feels like an old-fashioned term itself), poodle parlor (a dog-grooming business), and poodle skirt (an unfortunate fad in the fifties). Tony Blair was often described as George W. Bush’s poodle—that meaning of “poodle” is about a hundred years old, and it’s first found here in 1907: “The House of Lords consented… It is the right hon. Gentleman’s poodle. It fetches and carries for him. It barks for him. It bites anybody that he sets it on to.” A similar shade of meaning is used in the title of one of my favorite books: Attack Poodles, James Wolcott’s look at yappy, obedient members of the media.

Hound is a word that’s been describing humans for a long time, and we all probably know some boozehounds and chowhounds. Back in 2007, I noticed a Television Without Pity fan who noted that Nip/Tuck star Joely Richardson’s “…‘shaky chihuahua’ interpretation of being sexually turned on” was a little unpleasant to watch. Then there are bulldogs. The OED has an example from 1855 that mentions “bulldog courage,” and an 1871 use that is similarly flattering to these ungainly yet adorable pooches: “Can Paris wait even until the bull-dog spirit of this hard-dying chief is able once more to show itself?” If you think of any dog breed, you can probably find one or two examples of it being used about a person.

Anyhoo…there are plenty of precedents for applying words like terriers to people. Fine. Whatever. Can I be honest for just one second? May I be frank? Can we talk?

This entire column is a thinly veiled excuse for me to convince you to watch Terriers, so it gets a second season and I can keep watching it. Just watch it, OK? I promise you it is better than 10,000 Scooby snacks—unless you actually are a dog. If you are a dog and you’re reading this, then you should forget about watching Terriers and progress immediately to the Nobel Prize committee. You have bigger squirrels to fry.

Mark Peters is a lexicographer, humorist, rabid tweeter, language columnist for Good and Visual Thesaurus, and the blogger behind The Rosa Parks of Blogs and The Pancake Proverbs.

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