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

Part 3: Cubs at large

By this time, the thrust of the posts united by the title “Not a dog’s chance” must be clear. While dealing with some animal names, we plod through a swamp (or a bog, or a quagmire) and run into numerous monosyllabic words of varying structure (both vowels and consonants alternate in them), lacking a clear etymology, and designating several creatures, sometimes having nothing to do with one another (for instance, “doe” and “grasshopper,” though this is an extreme case). In a search for their derivation, we encounter calls to animals, their cries, color, specific qualities, taboo words, and so forth. As a final approach to the etymology of dog, the story of the noun cub may also sound instructive.

Once again it is the context (this time the surroundings of cub) that counts. Next to cub, we find cob and cop, displaying a variety of senses. Some refer to animals, some to round and lumpy objects, and others to the head. About two dozen words of the k-b/p structure in Germanic mean “cap,” “cup,” and “cop” (that is, “head”). They have look-alikes in Romance and in non-Indo-European languages, and final b tends to replace p in them for no obvious reason. We watched the same while dealing with tyke and bitch, but there the pool contained relatively few items, while here one faces an endless list. The arguments that (Old) French bisse ~ biche “doe, hind” is not related to bitch are probably convincing, but the word ended up in just the environment it needed: numerous similar nouns have the same shape, and it is no wonder that old etymologists tried to connect biche and bitch. As regards the cob ~ cop ~ cub ~ cup group, we probably have migratory words that influenced one another’s sound shape and meaning.

Tarred with one etymological brush.
Tarred with one etymological brush.

Cub surfaced in texts in the sixteenth century. Its only close cognate is Low (= northern) German kübbelken “the weakest nestling.” For more than two centuries, dictionaries, including Webster’s, repeated Minsheu’s idea (1617) that cub is related to Latin cubo “to lie, repose” (as in incubare). This is of course nonsense, even if we substitute “borrowed of” for “related to,” but Minsheu’s explanation deserves being quoted for curiosity’s sake: the cub “lies in his hole, and goeth not for prey as the Reynard, or old Fox doeth.” (With regard to old Fox, see the recent series Vulpes vulpes.) Another etymology of cub, though also unacceptable, makes more sense. Its author was Noah Webster, who suggested (in 1828) that the English word is perhaps allied to Irish caobh “branch, shoot.”

They lie in a hole and go not for prey, obedient to Minsheu's Law.
They lie in a hole and go not for prey, obedient to Minsheu’s Law.

Webster operated with a great number of languages, but, like everybody else in the English-speaking world, he looked away from Germany and missed the birth of what we today rather pompously call scientific etymology. In a way, it was scientific, except that it solved fewer problems than it hoped to solve. But such is the fate of all pioneering projects. Be that as it may, Webster’s derivations rarely present interest today. Yet the Celtic origin of cub is given as a possibility not only in the first edition of Skeat (the reference is to Modern Irish cuib “cub, whelp, dog”), but in some of the best modern dictionaries, though, wisely, not in the OED!  The Old Irish word was extremely rare and cannot be considered as the source of cub. We’ll see that, paradoxically, nothing can be considered as its source.

Rather suggestive is the comparison of cub with Old Icelandic kobbi “young seal” and kubbi “block of wood.” As could be expected, some people did derive Engl. cob and cub from kobbi ~ kubbi, but cob has so many almost incompatible senses that no single etymon will probably do for all of them. Kobbi coexists with a doublet kópr, and we end up none the wiser. The farther we search, the more animal kob- ~ kop- words we find, all of them with affective geminates (that is, long “hypocoristic” consonants), unpredictable vowels (whose random use has been wittily called false ablaut), and—the most important result of all—of unknown origin. Compare two almost random examples: Swabian kōb “old nag” and Russian kobyla “mare” (stress on the second syllable; –yla looks like a suffix). Similar monosyllabic words (for instance, mok-, lob-, lop-), alongside tik– and bik-, turn up everywhere. They have typically been recorded late and seem to be of dialectal provenance, which is natural, for people in close contact with animals have always been peasants. Such words are not tied to any one sense and tend to refer to something small or soft. Some vague original sense like “lump” is possible.

From the historical perspective, cob “animal name” is indistinguishable from cub. The same monosyllabic words often designate young and useless (old!) animals. For example, we find German dialectal kippe ~ kibbe “ewe,” Danish kippe “small calf,” Swedish dialectal kebb, kubbe, etc. “calf,” Dutch dialectal kabbe ~kibbe “a small pig,” Scots keb ~ kebber “refuse sheep taken out of the flock,” and a host of others. One can wander forever among the words for “block of wood,” “fat person,” chips, chaps, and chops and find more of the same. That is why attempts to discover one certain source of Engl. cub are doomed to failure. In this forest of primitive creation, everything looks like something else. Even more futile is the hope to reconstruct a solid Proto-Germanic or Indo-European root for a word like cub. Nothing will change if we agree that Latin gibbus “lump” or Old Icelandic keipr “rowlock” is (“distantly, obscurely”) related to cob or cub. Relatedness in this sphere is a fiction.

Even the age of cub is indeterminate. Our records of cub do not go beyond the sixteenth century, but nothing follows from this fact. Perhaps cub was indeed coined or borrowed around 1600, but it could have existed for a long time before making its way into a text. If it was borrowed, we should try to discover its origin in German, Dutch, or Scandinavian, for it is not only English that concerns us, and the story begins anew. However, I don’t think that “origin unknown” is what dictionaries should say about cub. It would be more useful to explain why the exact origin of this word cannot be determined and what we do know about it, since it appears that we know not so little about its history or at least about its environment.

Dog-king in power.

As a postscript, I would like to mention a word few people know, namely Old Icelandic kofan ~ kofarn “lapdog.” The word is remembered because a Danish chronicle tells a story about how Hagan, King of Sweden, sent a dog to rule the Danes. In the past, the word was sometimes dismissed as being of unknown origin. But we notice Modern Icelandic kofa “a young bird of the loon family” and the already cited Old Icelandic kobbi “seal.” Here then is the name of a dog containing a familiar root. If the original form was kofan, the word was wonderfully apt: it had the root signifying a puppy and the honorific suffix used in the words designating kings and aristocrats. A cub-king could not have had a more apt name.

With a long discussion of tyke, bitch, and cub behind us, we are ready to attack dog in the true dog-eat- dog spirit. The end of the series may strike some as an anticlimax, but, if we agree on at least something concerning the etymology of the truly impenetrable word dog, we will score an important victory. If, however, the attack is repelled, we’ll retreat and lick our wounds. Etymological wounds heal easily.

Image credits: (1) Piglet by Alexas_Fotos, Public Domain via Pixabay (2) Calf by Pezibear, Public Domain via Pixabay (3) Baby Harbor Seal by Ed Bierman, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr (4) Grey Fox Kits by skeeze, Public Domain via Pixabay (5) Dog Crown by Anja Kiefer, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Featured Image: “Lion cubs” by Matt Biddulph, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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