Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

I double dog dare you to reject my etymology, or the dog’s chances increase (even if ever so slightly)

The origin of Engl. dog will not look like a uniquely formidable problem if we realize that the names of our best quadruped friend are, from an etymological point of view, impenetrable almost all over the world. The literature on dog is huge, and the conjectures are many. Every next scholar hopes to solve the riddle, but, since articles on the subject keep appearing, I assume that there is still room for improvement. The traditional sources of animal names are known quite well, and I have listed them in my previous posts on tyke, bitch, and cub. Perhaps dog was originally the name of a particular breed and referred to some color (brown?); if so, dog may share its root with dye. Or the word goes back to a call to the animal. Or it meant “runner” or “a useful animal” (supporters of the latter hypothesis compare dog and the family of Engl. doughty). Similar-sounding nouns and verbs are readily available (dodge is especially tempting but should be kept apart from dog: see my old post “Between dodge and kitsch”). Old Icelandic has dugga “a headstrong, intractable person,” and in Old English the personal name Dycga has been recorded. It is anybody’s guess whether one or more of those words should be compared with dog, but even the establishment of a precarious tie will shed no light on the origin of our animal name. Suppose dog is a congener of Dycga or dugga. So what? Old arguments tend to be repeated in later works because they seem to hold out some promise and because until a few years ago a fairly complete bibliography of English etymology did not exist and it was nearly impossible to produce an informed survey of the state of the art.

Speakers of Old English called the dog hund, the progenitor of the modern noun hound, a word, allied, according to many, to Latin canis.  In our earliest texts, only the form docgena (the genitive plural) turned up, and only once (in the Boulogne Prudentius Glosses). It was applied contemptuously to the pagan henchmen of the torturer Dacianus by their victim Vincentius and rendered Latin canum. The canum ~ docgena pair makes it almost certain that docgena did indeed mean “of (the) dogs,” and we note with surprise that the word’s pejorative sense surfaced before the regular, neutral one. It had either gained some currency as vulgar slang by the middle of the eleventh century (and was avoided in writing) or the glossator used an animal name current in his dialect but unknown elsewhere (this would be a common case). The glosses in question contain rather many words not attested in earlier texts. In the form docgena, the letters cg should be pronounced as gg, that is, as long g. To the best of our knowledge, the nominative was docga. Frog, stag, (ear)wig, and quite probably pig also ended in –cga in Old English.

Although it has once been suggested that –cga is a remnant of some longer word, the predominant opinion of modern scholars makes better sense: we seem to be dealing with so-called hypocoristic formations, that is, with pet names like pussy and doggie. The word was probably coined late, so that looking for its cognates in Greek and Latin will hardly yield useful results. The idea that that dog has the same root as Greek dákno “I bite” goes back to Minsheu (1617); it recurred two and a half centuries later in a fully respectable work. Yet this is a dead end. The same holds for the alleged parallel Greek thōússō “I shriek; incite dogs by crying out, etc.” ~ Engl. dog. Comparison with dogma is bizarre, to put it mildly.  The word dog ousted hound only in Middle English. It became a generic animal name, while hound came to mean predominantly “hunting dog, dog kept for the chase.” Neologisms constantly supersede old words—an analog of the plebeians’ triumph over unwary aristocrats.

AugustPott
August Pott, a great Indo-European scholar, who, though a learned man, did not ignore dogs and their names.

Despite the ever-increasing number of works on the etymology of dog, two statements remain constant: dog is a neologism of unknown origin, and the word has no cognates even in Germanic, for, wherever it appears, it is a borrowing from English. The first statement is correct, but the second may perhaps be modified. In looking at the geography of tyke, bitch, and cub, we observed a multitude of forms spread over a rather large territory. The great German philologist August Pott (1802-1887) enjoyed great renown in his time. His productivity was awe-inspiring, but today few people consult his multivolume compendium and his informative articles. In 1863, he wrote a long linguistic essay on dogs. Among the astounding number of words he cited, he mentioned dodel “dog” (apparently, recorded in a German dialect of Alsace; the reference is unclear), döggel, and teckel from Schleswig, as well as many forms belonging with tyke but having a short vowel. As usual, d varies with t, and g with k in German dialects. Döggel ~ teckel may be a diminutive of the English loanword, but dodel may be independent of them. Even more instructive is the 1966 work by Werner Flechsig, who investigated the name for “bitch” in Ostfalia (Low Saxony). While discussing the word Tache and its eighteenth-century synonym Tiggel, he suggested that they might be cognate with dog. Tiggel resembles döggel. Both are diminutive forms (like dodel), and, as regards word formation, belong with the Old English animal names ending in –cga.

Tropenmuseum_Royal_Tropical_Institute_Objectnumber_5178-1_Houten_speelgoedmannetje
A piece of wood used as a doll.

Experience shows that, when we encounter an etymologically obscure late English word, a thorough search for possible cognates should be made in Dutch and Low (= northern) German. This is how a cognate of bad, also called by all lexicographers isolated, was uncovered (see my posts on this word). Dog, like bad, was probably a baby word. A promising approach to dog can be found in the 1982 paper by Ulrike Roider and in the 1983 paper by Thomas Markey. Roider listed German dialectal dogke “a foolish woman; doll,” obviously related to German Docke “doll.” Old dolls were often short pieces of wood dressed like manikins. One of the meanings of Engl. dock is “the solid fleshy part of a horse’s tail; crupper, rump”; the verb dock means “to remove the end of the tail; cut short.” Roider suggested that Engl. dog, allied to Docke, got its name from the practice of docking dogs’ tails. But perhaps there is a shorter way from “doll” to “dog.” If we are dealing with a baby word, it won’t come as a surprise that little children used the same monosyllable for the toy and the pet. The object’s form probably did not matter. Like bad, dog, with its phonetic variants, had limited currency in English and Low German, but, just as bad edged out evil, so did dog limit the sphere of application for hound.

Braque_du_Bourbonnais
The tail has been cut short, but there is probably no shortcut from it to the origin of the word dog.

Markey cited similar Low German words in his discussion of dog. They mean “girl; doll; clump, straw bundle.” Like Roider, he referred to breeds of dogs with artificially abbreviated tails. But he followed Eric Hamp’s etymology of pig and reconstructed the basic meaning of those words as “small, young.” Hamp may have been right in connecting Engl. pig and Danish pige “girl,” but the common denominator was hardly the size of both. Let us remember that pig is another upstart; it superseded swine. Animals and children form a close union. “Little creature” applies to both, but it is more likely that dog and pig were vague, “polyfunctional” syllables out of the baby’s mouth. They could be applied to various objects, with toys, animals, and some pejorative epithets being especially prominent among them. Later grownups picked up such vague, rootless words, specified their use, and made them part of their vocabulary.

Featured image: Chihuaha by Teerasuwat Jiratarawat, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Images: (1) “Wooden toy doll” by Tropenmuseum, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons (2) “Braque du Bourbonnais” by Mic comte, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *