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ITS A DOG'S WORD

Many dog owners name their pet after its appearance (Spot), its behavior (Rover), a region (Dixie), or some service it may perform (Scout).  The names of dog breeds often have similar origins. 

Many breeds of dog are named after the help they have provided their owners, especially in hunting.  A pointer is a dog trained to smell out game and then point to it until the hunter is ready to fire. A setter, on the other hand, indicates the position of game by adopting a rigid stance in which it neither moves nor makes a sound. This is called a "dead set." (Thus, when a person is said to be "dead set" about something, he or she has adopted a rigid, immovable attitude.) A terrier is another dog used in hunting, one which digs up earth (French terre) to scare a burrowing animal out of its hole. 

Other breeds of dog are named after the place in which they were originally bred or most commonly found. Saint Bernards, for example, were once kept by the monks of Great Saint Bernard Pass in the Swiss Alps. Airedales come from the dale of the river Aire in Yorkshire, England. The Dalmatian is associated with the ancient kingdom of Dalmatia on the Adriatic Sea, and the Pomeranian comes from Pomerania, near the Baltic. 

From the New World comes the Chihuahua, named after the state in northern Mexico. And from Asia we have the Pekinese (or Pekingese) from Peking. (Now that the capital of the People's Republic of China is more commonly known as Beijing, this breed of dog might be redubbed the Beijinese.) 

The names of some breeds suggest both their place of origin and the purposes for which they were bred. The Labrador retriever, from Labrador on the Atlantic coast of Canada, may be trained to retrieve downed game fowl. From Spain come the spaniels--the cocker spaniel, used to hunt woodcocks, and the springer spaniel, used for flushing out, or "springing," game. 

If you need to have the origins of German shepherds explained, you haven't been paying attention. But the names of other German breeds require some translation. Schnauzer is from German schnauzen, "to snarl."  Dachshund means literally "badger hound" (German dachs, "badger" + hund, "hound"). The Doberman pinscher takes its name from Doberman, a tenth century dog breeder and German pinscher, "terrier." Though the poodle is now more commonly associated with France, its name is also from German--derived from Low German pudelen, "to splash," akin to our word "puddle."

It is sometimes thought that collies are named after some service they performed for colliers, or coal miners. But this highly intelligent breed has always been used mainly by shepherds, not miners. Actually, collies are named after their appearance. Collie is from coaly, since the breed most common in Britain is white with black spots, as if its coat had been smudged with coal. 

Since dogs are often named according to their appearance, it may seem obvious where breeds like bulldogs, greyhounds, and huskies got their names. But, alas, what seems obvious is not always true. Bulldogs are not so called because they resemble bulls, but because they were bred in medieval England for the sport of bullbaiting. And the "grey" in greyhound is not a reference to the dog's color. The first syllable comes from an old Norse word meaning "dog." So the name of the breed means literally "hound hound." Huskies certainly are strong and husky, but their name is a corruption of "Esky," short for Eskimo, from the people with whom this breed is associated. 

The names of other kinds of dogs also breed misconceptions.  Bloodhounds, for example, are sometimes used to track fugitives and it is sometimes supposed they are named for an alleged ability to sniff out blood. Actually they are so named because they have "pure blood," meaning they are descended from purebred stock. 

The opposite of a purebred is a mongrel. Having learned about the names of other kinds of dogs, readers may wonder if mongrels came originally from Mongolia, or if they were bred by fishmongers, or if they have a reputation for getting the mange. But none of these has to do with the word "mongrel"; these are silly theories I just now made up. Mongrels, of course, are not a breed at all but a mingling of breeds. The name is derived from the Old English gemong, "mingling," with the suffix, rel, which adds a negative connotation (as in wastrel).
 

Recent Publications

The Way We Word 

WHAT'S IN A SURNAME? 

ITS A DOG'S WORD 

NEW WORDS FOR A NEW CENTURY

WORDS FOR THE BIRDS

KINGS AND CABBAGES: The Origin of Common German Family Names

NEARBY PLACES WITH STRANGE-SOUNDING NAMES

DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE: Names of Pennsylvania's Rivers and Creeks

WORDS OF CON-GRADUATION

 


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