A dog’s life

By Mellissa Martinez

Strolling past the Claremont Pooch Park, it’s hard not to notice the crazed canine vibe. Beloved pets yelp, jump and sprint in excitement. Others silently snoop around. Life, however, has not always been so sweet for our four-legged friends. Expressions like a dog’s life, sick as a dog, dog days, dog tired and go to the dogs reflect the fact that dogs used to struggle for survival.

Initially used as hunters and protectors, they endured centuries of hardship before arriving in the modern era where they hop up onto beds, wear designer clothes, eat gourmet meals and prance at pooch parks.

‘Dog’ comes from the Old English docga, a rare word used for a particularly powerful breed of canine. Although it eventually overtook the common Germanic word hund, the origin of docga is still unknown. By the 1500s, it had spread to other languages such as French dogue and Danish dogge. This is not the only canine term to elude linguists. The root of the common Spanish word for dog, perro, also is a mystery and the English word ‘pooch,’ from the 1920s, is another. Although there are stories that credit ‘pouch’ and ‘pod’ as sources, none are verified.

Canine, which refers to ‘dog’ and ‘pointed tooth’ in English, comes from the Latin caninus ‘of the dog.’ This led to the Italian, cane, French chien and Portuguese cão, among others. The Proto-Indo European root is thought to be *kwon- which evolved to become German (and later Old English) hund and Greek kyon. In other words, both ‘hound’ and ‘canine’ come from the same root. Related English words are ‘kennel,’ ‘canary’ and ‘cynic.’ ‘Kennel’ comes from the Lain canem, ‘dog,’ and ‘cynic’ comes by way of the Greek kynikos, ‘dog-like,’ which referred to the sneering sarcasm of some philosophers. ‘Canary,’ the tiny songbird, was named for the islands where it was discovered, the Canary Islands, or ‘islands of the dogs.’

Although many people love their mutts, in the early 1900s, the word was not used with fondness. It meant ‘stupid or foolish person.’ This shortened version of muttonhead was used only briefly for people and more generally for dogs, especially mongrels. Initially, it was used with contempt, but eventually mutts did the same as purebreds—won the hearts of humans. 

Purebreds are often named after their place of origin. Maltese come from the island of Malta; Pekingese, from Peking (former Beijing); the Rottweiler originated in the German town of Rottweil; Spaniel means Spaniard; Akita is a northern district in Japan; Dalmatian comes from Dalmatia, a region in Croatia; and Chihuahua is believed to be a native word from Mexico, which means ‘dry or sandy place.’

Other pooches got their names from their famed skills as hunters. The name Terrier came about in the early 1400s from Old French chien terrier, literally ‘earth dog.’ This is from Medieval Latin terrarius ‘of earth.’ Terriers got their names because of their persistence when pursuing prey into burrows. The Poodle gets its name from puddle. In the early 1800s, Germans called this dog a pudelhund or ‘water dog’ because it was used for hunting waterfowl. The Setter was so called because of its reputation for being ‘set on its game’ and Dachshund literally means ‘badger hound’ in German.

Some doggies are named for their appearance or habits. The Schnauzer, a breed of terrier, comes from the German schnauzen ‘to snarl, growl.’ This is related to Middle English snoute ‘snout.’ The Shih Tzu gets its name from a much larger source, a lion. The Chinese is shi ‘lion,’ zi ‘son’ and gou ‘dog.’ Another Chinese namesake is the Shar-pei or ‘sand skin,’ and Corgi comes from the combination of Welsh cor ‘dwarf’ and ci ‘dog.’ Readers may be surprised to learn that the Greyhound is not named for its color, just as the Husky is not named for its body type. Rather, greyhound is a combination of Old English grig ‘bitch’ and hound and Husky is a shortening of Canadian English Ehuskemay or Eskimo.

The quick-moving Whippet got its name in the 1600s from the verb ‘whip,’ ‘to move quickly.’ However, the dog was not the first to carry this name. Earlier, the word whippet had referred to ‘a brisk, nimble woman.’ The Bull Terrier developed the name ‘pit bull’ because of the human interaction of pitting dogs of this breed against each other, and the Boxer was also named for its fighting ability. On the opposite spectrum, we have the mastiff—this large, powerful breed of dog gets its name from the Latin mansuetinus ‘domesticated, tame.’ 

Some of the stranger etymologies can be found in dogs like the Samoyed. The dog takes its name from the Siberian Mongolian people, from Russian Samoyed, literally ‘self-eaters’ (although there is some suggestion that the idea of cannibalism stems from folk etymology). The Beagle probably derived its name from the French becguele ‘noisy person,’ literally ‘gaping throat,’ from bayer ‘open wide,’ and for those readers whose houses are ruled by a protective Labrador, the name appropriately comes from the Portuguese, lavrador ‘landholder.’ 

According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, dog domestication probably occurred 18,000 to 32,000 years ago in Ice age Europe, when wolves followed bands of semi-nomadic hunters in search of woolly mammoths. Although dogs may have originated in one place, their names tell a truly international tale. With origins as far off as Canada, Europe, Asia and beyond, it is clear that the pooch park is among the most diverse places in our town.


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