Gone To The Dogs

He may be man’s best friend, but no one is quite sure where his name comes from.

The word dog appears once in Old English, in a gloss from ca.1050, rather late in the Old English period. The gloss reads "canum docgena." Initially, dog was used to refer to particularly large canines. The origin of the word is obscure with no known root in other languages. Several European languages have cognates of dog, but these are all descended from the English word and provide no clue as to its original provenance.

Prior to the appearance of dog, the Old English word most commonly used to refer to canines was hund, or as we say today, hound. The word dates to as early as ca.857 and was originally used to refer to any canines. Starting ca.1200, hound began to be used in the restricted sense we know today, a hunting dog specialized for the chase, especially one that follows its prey by scent. Later the meaning was extended to chase dogs that rely on sight, such as greyhounds, and the terms scent hound and sight hound have come into use to differentiate between the two types.

Dog is also used to refer to a male canine and to males of other species such as foxes. The female counterpart is bitch, a term that dates to c.1000. The Old English bicce has only one known cognate, the Old Norse bikkja. Which is the original is unknown. If the Norse term is older, it may derive from the Lappish pittja, but the reverse could also be true and the Lappish could be derived from the Norse and ultimately the English. The use as a derogatory term for a woman dates to sometime before 1400.

As befits man’s best friend, dogs have a prominent place in English phraseology. One can go to the dogs (1565) or lead a dog’s life (1764). We are admonished to let sleeping dogs lie (1562) and after a night on the town to take a hair of the dog that bit you (1546). When one ruins something for everyone else, one is a dog in the manger (1573), after the fable of the dog that would not let the other animals eat even though it had no interest in the fodder itself. And of course, a torrential downpour is to rain cats and dogs (1738).

As a verb, to dog means to follow closely and persistently, 1519. It can also mean to close and secure a door or opening (1591), after the name of a type of clamp likened to a canine because of its jaws and teeth. In 20th century American slang, to dog it means perform lazily or shirk one’s duties.

The adjective dogged also carries the connotation of persistency (1779). But it can also mean sullen or morose (ca.1400) or simply refer to the characteristics of a canine (ca.1440).

To dog ear a book, meaning to turn down the corners of a page to mark one’s place, is from sometime before 1659. The use of dog ear as a noun to refer to folded down corner dates from ca.1725.

Dogfight has meant a battle between fighter aircraft since at least 1919, but it has been in use since 1880 to generally mean any scrap or melee.

So despite its obscure origin, dog, like the canine it represents, has become an integral part of our lives.

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