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Leaving the kennel, or a farewell to dogs

My series on the etymology of dog and other nouns with canine roots has come to an end, but, before turning to another subject, I would like to say a few moderately famous last words. For some reason, it is, as already mentioned, just the names of the dog that are particularly obscure in many languages (the same holds for bitch and others). The great historical linguist Antoine Meillet once wrote that all attempts to reconstruct the origin of Latin canis are futile. Meillet was prone to pontificating and shedding discouraging words of wisdom. Thus, more than a century ago, he observed that all the good etymologies had already been found, while all the new ones were bad. Since I pride myself on offering three, perhaps even four new convincing etymologies, I feel slighted. However, as regards canis, he may have been right. Trouble arises even when everything appears to be clear. Consider greyhound. It is of course a compound. The first element is related to Old Icelandic grey “bitch,” a noun of undiscovered origin. The idea that grey here is a color word does not inspire confidence.

Antoine Meillet is much better known than August Pott (and deservedly so), but, unlike Pott, he left us little hope.
Antoine Meillet is much better known than August Pott (and deservedly so), but, unlike Pott, he left us little hope.

The situation with canis and grey is typical. Germanic hund-, whether allied to canis or not, is, to us, an arbitrary coinage, for we cannot explain its initial meaning. Likewise, the origin of Spanish perro “dog,” an orphan of the Romance languages, remains a notorious puzzle. Similar riddles torment language historians in Slavic. East Slavic sobaka (stress on the second syllable), discussed at some length before, is explained in our most reliable dictionaries as a borrowing from Iranian, but O. N. Turbachev, who for decades was the editor of and the main contributor to a Common Slavic etymological dictionary, as well as the author of a book on the names of domestics animals in the Slavic languages, pointed out that this derivation has little to recommend it and preferred to search for the word’s source in Turkic, though he formulated his hypothesis with utmost caution. To repeat what I said in an earlier post, one wonders why any community should have taken over the name of the most common domestic animal from its neighbors. Apparently, when the word made its way to the Slavs (assuming that sobaka was indeed a borrowing), it was not a mere generic term. Russian kobel’ “castrated dog” (stress again on the second syllable), a word I also mentioned in one of the posts of the series, is equally obscure, and so is pes (pronounced as pyos), the Common Slavic word for “a (male) dog.”

The story of pes (pyos) made me return to Meillet’s cruel dictum. It happened because I have read with great interest a 1993 article by Hans-Jürgen Sasse about the dog’s name kut or kuch, current in the Mediterranean region, all over Eastern Europe, in Finno-Ugric, Indo-Iranian, Semitic, and even in some American Indian and aboriginal Australian languages. German Köter “stray dog” and Hungarian kutya “dog” apparently belong with kut ~ kuch. In some places, kut and its phonetic variants are used as a call to dogs and cats. Among the forms, we find kuta(k), guda(g), guda, and gudaga, the latter sometimes being shortened to dog (!). Kutyakutyu “pup” and kutyityi “baby animal,” along with tjutju “dog,” have also been attested.

A first approach to global etymology.
A first approach to global etymology.

No clarity has been achieved in trying to account for the world-wide spread of kut and its analogs in naming dogs and cats. A case of parallel formation in the spirit of Wilhelm Oehl (the hero of an old post on the word butterfly) or the result of dissemination? Kut is not the only common favorite, and this is where Slavic comes into play. The group psps, which we half-recognize in Engl. pussy, is a near universal call to cats. In Modern Greek, the baby word for “cat” is psipsina, and when I saw psipsina, I immediately thought of Russian pyos. Is it possible that all the learned conjectures about pyos are useless and that pyos is a baby word, like pussy? One of my animal series was devoted to fox (“Vulpes vulpes”). In Part 2, I told a story about a girl who listened patiently to her mother’s explanation about the mechanics of street cars (electricity, wires, rails, and so forth) and said: “No, this is not the way they go.” “And how do they go?” asked the woman in surprise. “Ding-dong,” replied the innocent child. I called this type of approach to word history ding-dong etymology. One should not fall for this type of etymologizing with too much readiness, but in some cases it probably works. Is pyos a baby word for “doggie”? We’ll never know, but it may not be entirely unprofitable to have this solution in the back of our collective mind. After all, the street car does go ding-dong, even if this fact cannot be incorporated into a manual of electrical engineering.

The French return to their sheep. I will return to the English word dog. Rather probably, it is a baby word, a “syllable” of the same type as kut and puss, but, unlike those, distributed over a small area: English and a few dialects of German. It will be remembered that the first occurrence of dog in English goes back to the middle of the eleventh century and that it surfaced in the glosses as a term of abuse. Curiously, Spanish perro was first recorded in 1136 and also as low slang with a pejorative sense. Everybody knows that dog is still a term of abuse, with examples going far beyond facetious statements like oh, you lazy dog. Derogatory senses are all over the place. Skeat attempted to derive dog cheap from Swedish (without success, in my opinion). All kinds of plants believed to be spurious have names beginning with with dog. Incidentally, Dog Latin is spurious (or mongrel) Latin. The same contemptuous implication can be easily detected in the fourteenth-century noun doggerel. Going to the dogs denotes the utmost state of deterioration. How did the dog, the most faithful animal that has followed humans from time immemorial, get such a devastatingly bad press?

Since in this series I have ventured so many hypotheses, none of which will probably be accepted, I will offer one more. Perhaps dog was an even looser term than the one I risked reconstructing in the previous post devoted to dogs. It might have been a baby word for a toy, an animal, and a bugaboo. Very small children typically use the same monosyllables for the most various objects surrounding them. Dog, I think, emerged as a unit, combining such almost irreconcilable senses as “a favorite pet” (“puppy,” if you want another baby word), “a frightening animal,” and “some toy; doll.” It entered adults’ slang with at least two of those senses (“domestic animal” and “bugaboo”) but first turned up in our oldest texts, by chance of course, as a term of abuse. The existence of stacga “stag,” frocga “frog,” and the like allowed it to survive as an animal name, but the deprecatory sense did not go away either. To be sure, in other langauges the word for “dog” also has a pejorative sense (for instance, Hund in German,” though Engl. hound is just an animal name). However, it is hardly ever as widespread as in English.

Despite all the abuse people heap on their most faithful pet, dogs were venerated and even deified all over the ancient world.
Despite all the abuse people heap on their most faithful pet, dogs were venerated and even deified all over the ancient world.

My work with the etymology of short English words, especially such as begin with and end in b, d, g (and sometimes p, t, k), for instance, bug, bog, big, bad, bed, dig, pig, and even god, invariably results in the discovery of onomatopoeia, expressive and symbolic formations, and baby talk. I have a strong suspicion that dog is part of that group. A look at a larger picture will also show that the origin of dog is not radically different from that of tyke, bitch, and cub, discussed in this series. The sphinx, her part animal nature notwithstanding, may be (to quote Oscar Wilde) without a riddle.

Featured image: Dogs by Ulrike Mai, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Ainslie Thomson

    I always enjoy your so very interesting column. Thank you.

  2. John Cowan

    Hound certainly can be derogatory. When Elvis sang “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog”, he was addressing a canine rather than a human being, but the original Big Mama Thornton version was definitely a woman’s song about a no-good boyfriend.

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