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Not a dog’s chance, or one more impenetrable etymology

Part 1: “Tyke” and its kin

The word dog is the bête noire of English etymology. Without obvious cognates anywhere (the languages that have dog are said to have borrowed it from English), it had a shadowy life in Old English but managed to hound from its respectable position the ancient name of man’s best friend, the name it has retained in the rest of Germanic. Before formulating even a preliminary hypothesis of where dog came from, it will pay off to study the larger picture, that is, to inquire about some other known names for “dog” and also for various dog breeds.

A few such names are self-explanatory: for instance, spaniel and Bolognese (Spain, Bologna). Some easily give away their Romance roots: terrier is such (terra “earth”); others, like beagle and mastiff, are considerably less transparent. Poodle, from German, seems to designate a creature fond of splashing in puddles. Talbot apparently derives from the personal name Talbot: the figure of a greyhound was borne in the coat of arms of the Talbot family. Collie, we are told, is related to coal because the earliest breed was black. The words for “dog” and its breeds sometimes go back to epithets like “fierce,” “tame,” “swift,” “loud,” and even “musical” (the latter two describe the animal’s bark) or the predominant color (collie is not the only example). Hound may be akin to Latin canis “dog,” but the vowels match badly and final -d has never been explained. The origin of the Latin noun is also obscure despite numerous conjectures on its origin. The idea of the affinity between hound and the Gothic verb meaning “catch” (hinþan; þ = th) was given up long ago, even though this approach is rather attractive and originated with no less a figure than Jacob Grimm. Also, hunt is not a cognate.

The real bête noire of English etymology.
The real bête noire of English etymology.

One more circumstance should be considered: the generic word for “dog” sometimes develops from the sense “female dog, bitch” or “whelp, cur.” To realize the odds facing the etymologist, we may follow the history of the noun tyke. Its source could have been Middle Low (= northern) German tike (disyllabic, of course; the same meaning) or Old Norse tík “vixen.” Although tyke usually means “dog” and especially “cur; mongrel” (let alone “child; toddler” and “an unpleasant, coarse man”—those are figurative senses), it occasionally denotes “horse” (so also in rather old texts) and “otter” (rarely). In my series on the fox (“Vulpes, vulpes”), I observed that the same word is often used for the fox and the wolf (compare Old Norse tík, above); the dog should be added to those two. But “otter” and especially “horse” look strange. Even if tike ~ tyke ever meant “cub” or “the young of any beast,” “whelp” and “colt” are hardly compatible.

In our search, we encounter many similar sounding words, with vowels and consonants alternating almost at random. Old High German zoha “bitch” (the modern form is Zohe), from toha, resembles Icelandic tóa “vixen.” Toha acquired the diminutive suffix and yielded Töle. Alongside Zohe ~ Töle, German dialects have tiffe, tifte, tēwe, tispe, tipse, ziwwe, zibbe, zeische, and tache or toche. Zibbe is especially instructive, for in different localities it designates “female hare” (the most common sense), “ewe,” “bitch,” and “female lamb.” Against this background, even the English trio tyke “dog—otter—horse” stops looking exotic. Our belief in the unity of the animal kingdom is further shattered when we remember that German tike resembles German Ziege “she-goat, nanny goat,” along with Zicke (the same meaning, and a few figurative senses) and Zicklein “kid,” the latter being a cognate of Old Engl. ticcen; Classical Greek (dialectal) ziga “goat” is a close neighbor.

Did Mary have a little tsibbe?
Did Mary have a little tsibbe?

Several of the forms listed above (ziwwe, zibbe, tēwe, tiffe, tifte, and the like) are clearly phonetic variants of the same etymon, but zoha ~ toha ~ tóa cannot be reduced to it. Tiffe reminds us of Dutch teef “bitch,” while tipse resembles Norwegian dialectal tiksa “bitch; ewe.” Dictionaries state unanimously that all those words are of unknown origin. This verdict presupposes that there is a certain meaning behind tyke ~ tike, zoha, zibbe, and the rest, something like “black, swift, etc.” but we don’t know it. However, the variety of senses (“bitch,” “ewe,” “she-goat,” “horse,” “otter”) defies the efforts to find such a basic meaning. Even though among our animal names we find a Classical Greek word, it does not follow that we have to look for an impressive-looking Indo-European root. We seem to be dealing with some extremely vague general sense “young animal” or “female animal,” most probably domesticated. “Otter” looks like a late and aberrant extension of the primordial sense. At one time, tyke was derived from German Dachs “badger” or from Danish tyk “thick; heavy”; neither conjecture has any value. Equally unconvincing have been the attempts to find a Celtic etymon for tyke.

Jan de Vries (1890-1964), an active and successful etymologist, suggested that the words of the type discussed here go back to calls to animals; hence, according to him, the great variety in their phonetic shape. Unbeknownst to him, Hensleigh Wedgwood had a somewhat similar idea as early as 1856. Tyke, he wrote, was “originally a young dog, then an affectionate expansion for the animal independent of age.” He believed that the complex tik was more or less universal, and in support of his reconstruction cited the look-alikes from Icelandic and Saami; he did not know that the Saami word was a borrowing from Germanic. This line of thought is reasonable. The onomatopoeic factor must also have played a role in forming such words. No one would try to find a profound etymology for the sound-imitative bowwow, arfarf, or woof-woof. So why not have a noun like woofy or arfy “dog”? Don’t we have puss-puss and pussy? All this may (or may not) go a long way toward solving the origin of dog.

I have a personal stake in this hypothesis. Russian dogs go gav-gav (this is a loud bark) or tiaf-tiaf (a high-pitched impotent bark), and tiaf-tiaf is amazingly close to tiffe and teef, featured above. Also, in the version of the story of three little pigs I read when I was a child, the brothers’ names were Niff-Niff, Nuff-Nuff, and Naff-Naff. (Forget the Urban Dictionary, especially nifff.) In the later editions I have consulted the pigs were usually nameless, and my students have never heard about Niff-Niff, Nuff-Nuff, and Naff-Naff. Years later I discovered that Swedish pigs say nöff-nöff and began to wonder whether the famous English story has Scandinavian roots.

A lovable Yorkshire tyke.
A lovable Yorkshire tyke.

It now remains for me to add a few lines about the nickname Yorkshire tyke. Those interested in the origin of the phrase should read a detailed article by J. Fairfax-Blakeborough on it in Notes and Queries, vol. 154, 1928: 439-40. A term of abuse, it has long since lost its offensive connotations. “None of the earlier dictionary makers connect the word [tyke] with Yorkshiremen, and, prior to about mid-eighteenth century, county and other literature has no reference to the word as meaning anything but a dog.” Tyke did have a few other meanings, but with regard to Yorkshire tyke, the author was right.

Image credits: (1) ‘Please play with me!’ by John Adams. CC BY-SA 2.0 via theadams Flickr. (2) Mary had a little lamb. Illustration by William Wallace Denslow (1902). Project Gutenberg EBook of Denslow’s Mother Goose. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Mural by the Savile Town Branch of the Calder and Hebble Navigation. Photo by Tim Green. CC BY 2.0 via atoach Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Peter Maher

    Hound is akin to Latin canis “dog.” The mismatch of the vowels was explained by Eris Hamp. In Hund und Vieh (hound and fee, animal paid as price), Osthoff clarified the dog meaning as “sheeper”. I suggest that the D of Gothic hunds originated by anaptyxis of n-s > nds… Cf. the d of English sound, vs French son. Cf. AE Housman’s rhyme of pounds and crowns, and the homonymy of dense & dents, tense & tents…

  2. Lorraine D'Amico

    I became informed that the dog of god was the slang that referred to the same person.
    St.Dominic had initials spelled backwards that would have been guzman of domini or dominic of guzman, dominic oslo guzman and the d.g. Changed to dog, and gd,god.
    Hound and lord were the words used . The word love is from kelev, the word for dog , of heart, of lev….lev turned to love.
    Dog is not god backwards, it is the same person who was the “hound of the lord”, and not the dog of god until those wprds that would have referred to a man faithful to god so faithful it was slang used to be like him….maybe dogs were seen as faithful to owner as dominic was to gospel.
    Dominic may be slang short laton for hound of the lorod, domini canus but even if it was not , his initals spell dog and god and probably where man’s best friend came from due to dominic being the gospel’s best friend.
    If he was not named hound of the lord, dominic then the story about the dream his mother had would not be significant.

  3. Judith Maizel Long

    As an amateur etymologist who grew up with the Yorkshire dialects and adjacent Derbyshire, “Tyke” always meant “Yorkshireman”. I never heard or read it as referring to a dog. Having a superficial acquaintance with Danish, I am aware that “tysk” means German (from “Deutsch”.
    As a history graduate, I wonder whether the origin of tyke is tysk, the historical context being that in the Danelaw (Danish/Viking rule of northern and central England c.800-1066CE). The Danish élite may well have perceived the local Anglo-Saxons as Germans.

  4. Ellie H

    I am inclined after studying this for some time that the word dog may have something to do with the Dogun of Mali who claim they were visited by beings from Sirius in ancient times (The Dog Star) as well as The Japanese dogu. There are also Babylonian references and links to relics discovered there and also in Sierra Leone. The relics of Japan and Sierra Leone are dated back at least 17,000 years. The ancient aliens theory is holding more and more water every day. See Season 14 Episode 4. of Ancient Aliens “The Star Gods of Sirius”…View it with an open mind.

  5. Ellie H

    Hi, a quick follow up “In fact, linguists all over the world were amazed when, while studying an extinct Australian Aboriginal language (Mbabaram), they found out that the word for dog was… dog! However, since few other similarities exist between the two languages, this was deemed a coincidence.” Hmmmm… And of course aboriginals of Oz also have stories of visitations.

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