Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Mysterious Dog

The Mysterious Dog
Back in 897, the English word that applied to any kind of dog was hundas, which soon changed to hund, & later to hound. Hound reined supreme as the overall word for canines, until it was usurped by an unlikely candidate, a word with no known origin, a word which in 1050 referred to a powerful, large breed of dog (nobody’s even sure what breed that was). The mysterious usurper was dog. In a mere three centuries, hound had been relegated to mean only dogs used for hunting, while dog took its place as the generic term for canines. I find it intriguing that though the word dog takes up a full three pages in the OED, nobody is sure of its origin.
And wouldn’t you think the Latin synonym would pre-date most of the others? Not so. Canine came to English in the 1500s from Latin, through French, but acted for over three hundred years exclusively as an adjective meaning doglike. It wasn’t until 1869 that canine made its way into the world of English nouns.
Mutt offers more mystery. Though mutt first entered American English in 1901 meaning stupid or foolish person, it gained the meaning of mongrel dog by 1904. Though etymologists can’t find a connection between them, it’s assumed the first meaning may have come from the contemptuous word muttonhead, which made a brief appearance in the early 1800s referring to a dim person. This usage has mysteriously disappeared since, though it’s such a lovely word, I’d be pleased to see it re-appear on the linguistic scene.
Oddly, the English word pooch & the Spanish word perro, are also of unknown origin. Thank heavens for cur & puppy, whose origins are clear. Puppy came to English meaning a woman’s small pet dog. It came from the Middle French word poupée, meaning doll. Though the word cur now clearly eschews the nobility of the dog in question, cur originally was attached to no such prejudice. Cur first arrived in English in the 1300s & is onomatopoeic, mirroring the growl of a dog.
Followers, what have you to say about all these dog-related mysteries? Also, are you with me in my hopes of reviving the word muttonhead?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources  Merriam Webster Online, The OED & Etymonline.


  1. That may explain something for me. A woman once took great offence when a guy called her a mutt. We were talking genealogy, so it was clear to me that he was referring to her mixed heritage. Maybe she was still working off the 1800’s definition. Or maybe she didn’t like dogs.
    I, on the other hand, am doubly blessed. I have both a hunda and a Honda!

    Thanks, Charlie. You’re definitely not a muttonhead! (There. Revived it.)

  2. Thanks, Charlie, for bringing in man's best friend. I LOVE dogs. I've always had one, and your dog photo is my most enduring breed of dog. Although, the shepard breed has lost its long ago beauty of structure to breeding the hips downward (which causes all kinds of trouble for the poor dogs). Did you know a group of concerned citizens are bringing back the straight-backed shepard? They way they are now, they look goofy and dimwitted. Sorry, but that's how I see them.

    About muttenhead, it deserves to be capitalized, I love the word that much. :)

  3. Jean Ann & Dawn,
    I'm so glad you fellow dog-fans came by. I love the doubly-blessed hunda-Honda idea; if your name were Rhonda you's be a hunda-Honda Rhonda. And Jean Ann, I love the idea of breeders actually taking a look at what they've done over the centuries to their favorite breeds. So many breeds have breeding-created anomalies. Bravo to these folks.