Issue 207, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Jack:

Where does the dog breed name poodle come from?

Standard PoodleWould you be surprised to learn that poodle and puddle are cognates?  The poodle was bred as a water dog, its curly coat being somewhat water-resistant.  Its English name comes from German, and in Germany and the Low Countries the dog was originally known as a pudelhund, or puddle hound (the Dutch form was poedelhond).  It is now known in German and Dutch, respectively, as the pudel or poedel.

Since poodle is cognate with puddle, we should look into the etymology of the latter.  It is thought to be a diminutive form of Old English pudd "ditch, furrow".  As a noun puddle dates from the early 14th century.  As with poodle, there are cognates in other Germanic languages.

The standard poodle is the oldest member of the breed, and it was originally used as a retriever in water.  What we might consider the fairly wild-looking cuts seen on the breed today are descended from clipping performed on working dogs to facilitate their movement in water but still afford them some protection.  The cut was thought to be attractive and was modified beyond what was practical to something fairly fanciful.  The breed is a relatively old one - it is seen in wood carvings by Albrecht Durer from the 16th century.

From Janice:

I have always wondered where beagle comes from.  Is it related to bugle?

The origin of this dog breed name is a bit cloudy, but the best suggestion is that it comes from French bégueule, formed from béer "to gape, open wide" and gueule "throat".  There is an Old French word, beegueulle, which one source says meant "a noisy, shouting person".  This may have been applied, in Anglo-French, to a dog that howled or barked loudly or a great deal.  There is absolutely no evidence that it was used in that sense in French, however.  The earliest record of the English word is from about 1475, and it was spelled begle.  The French name for the breed is bigle, but it comes from the English word.

The beagle is thought to have descended from small hounds bred to hunt small game in Southern Europe, particularly Greece.  Dogs resembling beagles are pictured on pottery from Greece of the 5th century BC.  It appears that these dogs were taken to the British Isles by the Romans.  There are references to small hounds in the Canterbury Tales, and, as mentioned above, the use of the specific term beagle dates from around 1475. 

From Liz:

My namesake, Elizabeth II of Great Britain, loves corgi dogs.  I understand they are a Welsh breed.  What does their name mean?

Well, we could just tell you the meaning of the word, but as it involves a peculiarity of the Celtic languages, we cannot resist digressing for a moment on the subject of mutation.  No, we don't mean the reason for corgis having such short legs.  We are referring to a linguistic mutation, not a genetic one.  In Celtic languages such as Welsh (of which the word corgi is a member), Gaelic and Breton, the initial letter of a word is likely to change (technically, to mutate).  The rules for this include the word's gender and the final letter of the preceding word.  Thus the Welsh for horse is ceffyl but "my horse" is fy ngheffyl, "your horse" is dy geffyl, and "her horse" is ei cheffyl.  Obviously, then, to look up a word in the Welsh dictionary, one needs to know a lot more than just the order of the Welsh alphabet.  Written Gaelic offers a solution to this problem by including all possible mutations in the spelling, but then one has to know which consonants to select for pronunciation.  Hence Mike's rule of thumb for reading Gaelic - "disregard half the letters and mispronounce what's left."  (No bombs, please.)

Now, back to the royal dogs.  With all due respect to corgi owners, this breed, with its fox-like head and short legs, does look a bit dwarfish.  The word corgi is formed from cor "dwarf" and gi, from ci, "dog", but the c of ci mutates to a g when following the r in cor.  The word first appears in the English written record, according to the OED, in 1926.  Note that in Welsh, the plural of corgi is corgwn (pronounced "cor-goon").  And there's more to ci - it is cognate with canine and kennel, and there are cognates in other Indo-European languages.  The Indo-European root is kwon- "dog", which is also the ultimate source of English hound.

The corgi itself is thought to have been introduced to Wales in the 12th century by Flemish immigrants.  It is also thought to be related to the Spitz group of herding dogs from northern Europe.  It was selectively bred for its short legs, which allowed it to herd smaller farm animals (fowl, pigs), and it was later adapted as a cow dog, as its short stature allowed it to stay out of the way of cattle's kicking hooves.  There are two types of corgi, the Pembroke and the Cardigan.  While today they are rather similar, they were actually quite different prior to cross-breeding in the 19th century.  The Cardigan, before cross-breeding, is thought to have had more native Welsh blood than the Pembroke.

From Daniel:

Why is the Pomeranian dog so named?  Is there a place called Pomerania somewhere?

Indeed there is.  It was a province of Prussia, but now it is shared between Poland and Germany, and it is known as Pommern in German and Pomorza in Polish.  The Polish word is formed from po "on" and morze "sea".  The dog is named after the province where it was bred, descended from the older Spitz breeds of the north that were used for sheepherding - in fact, the Pomeranian is also known as the Dwarf Spitz.  Originally the Pomeranian weighed up to 30 lbs., but when Queen Victoria decided that she liked the dogs, she preferred them smaller, and so breeders selected for smaller animals until today the Pomeranian is typically quite small at 4-5 lbs. 

The earliest known occurrence of the word Pomeranian in English is from 1760.

From Jonathan:

The Mastiff is gaining popularity as a breed.  What's the origin of the name?

Mastiffs are big dogs and they can be quite fearsome and ferocious.  They have especially large heads and, to go with them, large teeth.  The breed is thought to be quite ancient - there are Babylonian carvings depicting dogs which look very, very much like today's mastiff.  But how, we hear you ask, did the breed travel to Britain from the ancient Middle East without turning up at any points in between?  It is thought that the breed arrived in Britain during the Bronze Age, carried by Phoenecian traders who came to the British Isles to buy tin.  Tin, of course, is an essential ingredient of bronze - one just can't have a decent Bronze Age without it.

Beginning in 55 BC, the Romans conquered much of southern Britain, discovered this large and fearsome dog, and took a few back home (apparently the Romans did quite a bit of dog ferrying).  All of the large mountain dogs of the Pyrenees and Alps, as well as those of Turkey and the Balkans, are said to have descended from those taken to continental Europe by the Romans.

Mastiff breeders agree that the British mastiffs retained the purest form and they represent the breed as it is known today.  Some sources indicate that the Celts used mastiffs in battle, and the animal has a long and venerable history of guarding castles and property in England.  English mastiffs are recorded as being bred at least as early as the Renaissance period.  James I of England (aka James VI of Scotland) sent a gift of mastiffs to Phillip II of Spain.

The English word is thought, through a bit of a muddy route, to have come ultimately from Latin mansuetus "tame".  So, interestingly, the Romans took this breed from the British Isles and gave back to Britain what became the breed's English name.  The Latin word is composed of manus "hand" (cf. Spanish mano) and suescere "to accustom".

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