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Gray matter, part 2, or, going to the dogs again

By Anatoly Liberman

I am returning to greyhound, a word whose origin has been discussed with rare dedication and relatively meager results. The component –hound is the generic word for “dog” everywhere in Germanic, except English. I am aware of only one attempt to identify –hound with hunter (so in in the 1688 dictionary by Rúnolfur Jónsson). Today no one doubts that greyhound goes back to the rather obscure Old Engl. grighund and that it is a cognate or a borrowing of Old Icelandic greyhundr. In Icelandic, grey means “bitch” and could always be used in the same derogatory sense as Modern Engl. bitch. For example, in a blasphemous ditty attributed to a tenth-century man, the goddess Freyja was called a grey. Discussion of whether a fertility goddess’s promiscuity deserved this censure and whether the poet’s “lesser outlawry” was a condign punishment for the ditty can be left for another occasion.

Even if we agree that in greyhound both elements mean nearly the same, the word’s overall structure is not absolutely clear. It looks like a tautological compound in which the parts are near synonyms. But, not improbably, the first element in it defines the second: grey would be specific and hound generic (“a dog which is a bitch”). This, however, is a minor point. The real question concerns the origin of grey-. In 1686, it was written that grey goes back to Latin gradus, as in Engl. degree, “because among All Dogs these are the most principal, having the chiefest place and being simply and absolutely the best of the gentle kind of Hounds.” This statement is an English translation of what was said as early as 1570.

The Latin for greyhound was Leporarius, from lepus “hare.” An extremely active contributor to Notes and Queries, who hid under the initials W.H., derived grey– from Irish garrey “hare” (greyhound = “hare-hound”). This is not a bad guess, as we know from both the meaning of Leporarius and many people’s habit of hunting with the hounds and running with the hare. But Mr. W.H. was immediately put right: the correct Irish form, he was told, is not garrey but gerrfhtiadh and it is not a particularly old word, while greyhound has an Old English ancestor. Another proposed Celtic antecedent of grey– was Gaelic greigh “flock, herd,” because dogs hunt in packs. As Skeat (already in 1868, years before he became an iconic figure in English etymology) pointed out, a compound made up of a Celtic element appended to an English one could hardly be imagined, considering that grighound occurred in Old English.

Where did the greyhound come from?
Where did the greyhound come from?

In the Latin nomenclature of Anglo-Saxon England, the greyhound, thanks to its swiftness, was known as Cursorius canis “running dog.” So perhaps in Old Engl. grighund, the first element is the same as Engl. grig “eel”? This would yield greyhound “sprightly, brisk dog.” Like most monosyllabic words beginning and ending with the same consonant, grig is a formation of uncertain etymology, but it seems to have been first applied to any diminutive, rather than quick, creature. (Irish greigh also means “a sudden burst of light,” which allegedly confirms the idea of swiftness.) Fortunately for this narrative, grig in the phrase merry as a grig is an alternation of Greek, a circumstance that allows us to turn our attention to Greece.

The hypothesis of the Greek origin of grey in greyhound probably belongs to Minsheu; it appears in his 1617 etymological dictionary. But why Greek? Because Greek “has always been associated with jollity, luxury, &c.” (so another contributor to Notes and Queries). And hunting, it was implied, is a sport of and for the jolly. Minsheu asserted that greyhounds were first used in Greece but did not offer any evidence in support of his statement. A learned contributor to the discussion wrote that “according to the older and the younger Xenophon it seems this species of dog did not exist in Greece.” Not being a specialist, I can only say that the chapter on dogs in Xenophon is long.

We find still another putative cognate of grey-, namely Engl. gres “buck” (the name alludes to grass and grazing: gres “a fatted buck”). Greyhounds “were used for pulling down the stag, and hunting the wolf and the wild boar; and were a rough dog, like the present Scotch deer-hound.” Buck emerged as a substitute for any big beast, and greyhound as “a dog trained for the chase of the noblest and strongest game.” However, not everybody emphasized the greyhound’s ferocity. Most people admired “this beautifully majestic, gentle, graceful, surpassingly swift, and courageous animal.” All this is very interesting but not instructive, because the old age of the compound and the evidence of the Scandinavian cognate cannot be shaken off. Quite naturally, Murray considered surveying, let alone refuting, such amateurish inroads on etymology below his dignity, but they are good enough for our entertainment, especially during the holiday season.

So what is the origin of Icelandic grey ~ Old Engl. grig– “female dog”? As mentioned in the previous post, Jan de Vries did not exclude a connection between grey and the color name. Before him, another distinguished etymologist Ferdinand Holthausen was of the same opinion (also with a question mark). The OED online treats this idea with justified suspicion. But everything depends on the “shades of gray.” If the Old English adjective could (as Wedgwood suggested) mean “speckled,” the reference might be to the patches often seen on a greyhound. Besides, color words are moving targets. For instance, a possible cognate of gray is Latin ravus “tawny.” Other than that, the names of female animals are usually opaque, as the following list will show (the words left without a gloss mean “bitch”).

  • Engl. bitch (from bikke)
  • Old Icelandic bikkja and baka (greybaka does no meant “grayback”!)
  • German Petze (from some form like betta?)
  • German Bache “sow; female pig” (from bakka?)
  • Middle Dutch big, bik, bag
  • the like “piglet,” Dutch big “pig,” and Engl. pig
  • Engl. tyke
  • Old Icelandic tík
  • Old Engl. ticken “kid” (with a close cognate in German Ziege “nanny-goat”)
  • German Zohe (from zoha; Icelandic tóa “female fox”)
  • Greek díza
  • the somewhat similar German word Töle (a diminutive?)
  • Dutch teef
  • German Zibbe (an obvious cognate)
  • Old Engl. tife


Among the glosses of the words given above, “female dog” predominates, but it competes with “ewe,” “sow,” and “nanny-goat.” The impression is that such sound complexes (tik, tib, big, pig, bak), which resemble baby words, designated pets or cuddly female domestic animals and were not necessarily tied to female dogs. Some coincidences are downright astounding. Russian sobaka “bitch” (stress on the second syllable) is a loanword from the East, but its last two syllables coincide with Icelandic baka (most probably, by chance). Could grig– be one of such migratory words for a female dog (ewe, sow), puppy, piglet, kid, lamb, and the like? Among the non-Germanic words for the greyhound, I find Polish ogar, Hungarian agár, and a few others (with old and modern cognates elsewhere in Slavic, Turkic, and the Caucasian languages); Old Russian grich’ meant “hunting dog.” Perhaps we will know more about the origin of grey– in greyhound when we get a full picture of how this breed spread through the countries of Eurasia. At the moment, we should only admit that to an etymologist the greyhounds are a rough dog.

Anatoly 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 on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology posts via email or RSS.

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Image credit: The Greyhound Inn sign, Whitchurch. Photo by harrypope. Creative Commons License via harrypope Flickr.

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