A Dog’s World: The Word Behind Man’s Best Friend

Nowadays it seems there are as many if not more lists of dogs’ as of babies’ names. Few potential pet owners, however, show much interest in the name “dog” itself. Which is a pity, because this hoary old noun, to paraphrase The Nation columnist Katha Pollitt in an article about motherhood, has a history stretching back across time and place.

“Dog” hails from the Old English word “dogca,” which actually referred to a specific kind of dog, a mastiff. “Dogca” in this sense was borrowed by several other European languages. In French it became “dogue” as in the breed the dogue de Bordeaux, the best-known example of which is the character Hooch in the Tom Hanks movie Turner and Hooch. The previous term for dog in Old English was “hound.” Ironically, while “hound” eventually took on a more restricted meaning – that is, of a hunting dog – “dog” came to signify the animal in general.

“Hound” is noticeably similar to the word for dog in the other Germanic languages. These include the Dutch “hond” (as in the breed the Keeshond) and “hund” in German and the Scandinavian languages. More distantly, it is related to the Latin “canis,” which gave us “canine” and “kennel” among other words. Even the Ancient Greek name for dog, “kyon,” has left its mark on the English language. “Kyon”’s most famous contribution to our vocabulary is “cynic,” which originally meant “dog-like” – and which would therefore have made the phrase “Garfield the Cynical Cat” a literal oxymoron. The Greek philosopher Diogenes, founder of the school of thought known as Cynicism, was called “The Dog” during his lifetime. He was alleged to have stated: “I am Diogenes the Dog. I nuzzle the kind, bark at the greedy and bite scoundrels.” Thus he and his followers were termed the Cynics, or dog-like ones.

Words for dog related – albeit more distantly – to “hound” can be found in other branches of the Indo-European language family.* Latvian has “suns,” Armenian “shun,” and even the classical Sanskrit of ancient India boasts “svan.” Linguists believe that the root word for “dog” in the original tongue spoken by the Indo-European people, who are believed to have lived in the Russian steppes 3,000 years before Christ, was something like “kwon.” The “k” then became an “h” in the Germanic languages and an “s” in Eastern Europe and some parts of Asia. The fact that such a wide range of languages use a derivative of “kwon” suggests that the earliest Indo-Europeans possessed domestic dogs, along with animals like cows, pigs, sheep and horses that also have similar names in these languages. On the other hand cats, who were only introduced to Europe in Greek and Roman times, lack an Indo-European root word; “cat” appears to be a borrowing from a Semitic language similar to the Arabic “qett.”

So the next time you pat your furry canine friend, think of the history behind his or her name!

* “Indo-European” refers to a group of languages spoken in most of Europe and a number of places in Western Asia and India. Well-known examples are English, Russian and Hindi.

2 Responses to “A Dog’s World: The Word Behind Man’s Best Friend”

  1. 1 utah photography Sep 29th, 2009 at 8:19 pm

    Wow, the history of words are so fascinating. I guess with that explanation that would make you Dogs Unlimited then =). I believe we can learn a lot about many subjects/things by learning about the history of its name. It helps us gain a great appreciation I think.

  2. 2 Emilia Liz Sep 29th, 2009 at 8:38 pm

    I have to add that during the time period when “dog” was replacing “hound” as the generic term for “dog,” the phrase “You’re nothing but a hound dog” would have been a redundancy. Not that I’ve not guilty of using redundancies myself from time to time: in the first sentence of my response I was about to write “I have to also add.”

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