Thursday, 23 April 2015

Dog - Man's Best Etymological Mystery

Photo by Jason Mrachina

DOG

Noun.
[Late Old English docga (once), of unknown origin.]

A carnivorous mammal, Canis familiaris, long domesticated for hunting or guarding,
as a pet, etc., and existing in many diverse breeds. LOE

Sharp-eyed readers of Lexicolatry might have noticed that the above definition of dog is a bit light; certainly it covers the animal, but doesn't dog have other applications too? What about, for example, dog as a contemptible person? What about the type of clamp? The lively, rakish man? And, yes, dog as a rather nasty term for an ugly woman. Of course, these are all valid, and for a full breakdown of its definitions you can click here to read it in Oxford Dictionaries.  

What's of interest with dog, however, besides its many and eclectic uses, is that it is one of the greatest etymological mysteries in the English language. For centuries, the Germanic word hund was in use; then, inexplicably, docga appeared and in the 16th century forced hund into the background. It succeeded in pushing its way into a few other European languages, such as French dogue and Danish dogge, but where it ultimately came from and how it fended off the likes of the Latin canis is anyone's guess. This is the sort of mystery that keeps lexicographers awake at night.

Being such a versatile word, it's unsurprising that dogs feature in so many expressions, many of which reflect our long and complicated history with them. For example, the expression a dog's life comes from the time when a dog's life really was the dog's life - when they were simply working and hunting animals, rather than the pampered pooches so many are today. Further, less-common expressions also attest to the misery of a dog's life: one can be dog tired, as sick as a dog, and even die a dog's death.

One especially curious canine expression is hair of the dog, which is an alcoholic drink taken to cure a hangover. This, again, originates from a time when dogs were not pets, but were regarded in Britain as diseased and potentially rabid vermin. Should one be bitten by a rabid dog, the dubious remedy was to take a potion made with the hair of the dog that bit you. Its use to refer to an alcoholic remedy for a hangover is first recorded in 1546, and you can see how it transferred across - just as part of the dog that gave you rabies could protect you from rabies, so too could a little more alcohol relieve you of your alcohol-induced suffering. Medically dubious, of course, but certainly interesting.

Of course, there are many more expressions from dogdom (yes, dogdom is a real word), which you can read about in this excellent article on the OED website. And, again, sadly, many of them reflect that, while dogs have historically been man's best friend, very often man hasn't been a particularly good friend to dogs.

Photo by Found Animals Foundation
Do you have any favourite doggy expressions?

Is there any canine trivia you'd like to share?

Do please leave your most dogged comment in the box below.

14 comments:

  1. As far as I know, a dog in French is a "chien" (< canis) but maybe there might be "dogues" out there, too. We stuck with the "hond", and they're mighty lovely they are.

    Too bad I'm a cat person.

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    1. Obviously the standard word for dog in French is "chien" from Latin canis while "dogue" borrowed from English "dog" exists in French as the word for "mastiff". The French word dogue is first recorded in a 14th century ballade used by an Englishman to abuse a Frenchman: "Franche dogue, dist un Anglois...." - "French dog, said an Englishman..."

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    2. An Englishman insult a Frenchman? Never!

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  2. I was told the other day that back in the 19th century, admission to London Zoo was free if you brought a dog or a cat to feed to the lions. Mans best friend indeed!

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    1. Perversely, A.N, I really hope that's true! That's trivia at its finest.

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  3. Bloodhound had a song a few years back, within the lyrics they sang about a sexual preference know as Doggy style...
    You normally don't missed these details....
    Just wanted to point that out "Big Dog"(means your the Alpha, the Big Cheese, The Don etc..
    Later Dog
    T

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    1. That reminds of the Flight of the Conchords episode where Brett and Jermaine think that adding '-Dog' to your first initial will give you a gangsta name - hence the B-Dog and the J-Dog, and I'd be E-Dog, and you (just in case you're not getting the system) would be the T-Dog.

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  4. I was going to say you're the "Big Dog" of Lexicographers but T 1 thousand beat me into it...
    I wish I had my Dog's Life :) but some dogs prove that the saying "you can't teach an old dog new tricks" was invented to apply to Men.
    I Love Dogs so it's no surprise that "Marley & Me" is very dog-eared ;)

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    1. I've never seen the movie or read the book, I'm afraid.

      But! ... when I was a little boy I read Jack London's Call of the Wild while accompanying my father on a business trip to Austria, and it was the first book I ever remember making me cry.

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  5. I wonder if there is any connection with the American word 'doggone' which is an expression of annoyance or irritation.

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    1. According to the OED, both 'doggone' and 'dog-goned' are probably alterations of 'God-damn' and 'God-damned' respectively, so no canine connection, I'm afraid.

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  6. This some sort of process that happened in English i.e. 'dog' ousting 'hound' has occurred in other languages as well. In Catalan the word for "dog" is "gos" which has replaced "ca" from Latin while in Spanish "perro" has replaced "can" (Latin: canis)

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    1. That's very interesting - seems like there's something unusually mysterious about 'dog' in many languages.

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    2. It also seems to be the trend that the word (English: dog / Spanish: perro / Catalan: gos) which replaced its respective native word for 'dog' (English: hound / Spanish: can / Catalan: ca) has an unknown etymology? Some theories are that perhaps "perro" and "gos" have their origins in 'a call used for dogs' as in Galician "apurrar" (“set the dogs on”). Or the words are from a substratum, substrate influence of a forgotten language, Catalan shares "gos" with its related language Occitan. Incidentally, "Pero" is the usual pet name in Welsh for a dog like the stereotypical name for a dog in English "Rover".

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