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, unspecified, large breed of dog. This 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. 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. Etymologists can’t find a connection between them, but 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 sadly disappeared, 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.
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
To receive weekly reminders of new Wordmonger posts, click on "Contact" & send me your email address.