What’s in a Name Part 1: Cur, Dog and Hound

October 2, 2008

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose; By any other name would smell as sweet.”
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

Words have a definition but they also have a deeper tapestry of meaning – especially old words. What do words say about our culture and our past? Take the word “dog” for instance. We all know what dog means:

dog
noun

  1. a domesticated canid, Canis familiaris, bred in many varieties.
  2. any carnivore of the dog family, Canidae, having prominent canine teeth and, in the wild state, a long and slender muzzle, a deep-chested muscular body, a bushy tail, and large, erect ears. Compare canid.
  3. the male of such an animal.
  4. any of various animals resembling a dog.
  5. etc.

I was having a chat with a friend the other day and he asked me what does hound mean. “A hound is a pack hunting dog,” I said.

My friend was not so sure. “Isn’t hound from the German, hund, meaning dog.”

A quick visit to the dictionary and I found that it means both.

hound
noun

  1. one of any of several breeds of dogs trained to pursue game either by sight or by scent, esp. one with a long face and large drooping ears.
  2. Informal. any dog.
  3. etc.

It turns out that hound is a much older word than dog. It traces back to Proto-Germanic which was a pre-cursor language of both English and German.

  • Proto-Germanic [2500–500 BCE]: hundaz
    • Old English (Anglo-Saxon) [400 BCE-1100]: hund
      • Middle English [1000-1400]: hound
        • English [1300-Present]: hound
    • Old High German: hunt
      • German: hund

It also turns out that hundaz as a verb is the progenitor of both the English and German verb to hunt. At a profoundly deep level, hound really means “hunting animal”. For 2000 years the only word for “dog” in germanic culture was equivalent to the word for hunt. At a very deep level of our culture there is a built-in assumption that dogs are for hunting.

Ok, if hound means “hunting animal”. Then what does dog mean?

  • Old English (Anglo-Saxon): dogca / dogga [powerful dog]
    • Middle English: dogge
      • English: dog
      • German: dogge [meaning mastiff]
  • Old Norse: kurra [to grumble]
    • Middle English: curren [to growl]
    • Middle English: curdogge [composite of curren + dogge (growling powerful dog, guard dog)]
      • English: cur [mongrel or inferior dog]

A couple of things happened in the first millennium. First, we spontaneously developed a new word for dogca which is used concurrently with hund. This new word dogca means a powerful dog that by definition is not used for hunting or else it would be a hund. Dogca eventually evolves into the modern German word for mastiff. By the time we reach the beginning of the second millennium, dogca, has become dogge  and is also used in a composite form with curren – to growl. Curdogge litterally means a growling mastiff. Obviously a guard dog. In modern English, curdogge has been truncated to cur.

Dog and cur are congnates. They have the same origin. Dog/cur is the name given to the guard dogs kept by common peasants. The differentiation of hound from cur coincides with the rise of the the Ango-Saxon nobles who restricted hunting as an activity for the gentry. Peasants were could not legally hunt. Therefore, their dogs were guard dogs only and guard dogs are of the peasantry. Hence curdogge becomes cur, the despised mongrel. In the 16th century – perhaps because of the force of overwhelming numbers – dog superseded hund as the generic term for dog in common use. Hound is now generally reserved for traditional hunting dogs (e.g. the Hound Group in the American Kennel Club and Kennel Club of England).

It seems that hound and dog are not the same. The word dog implies common in every sense of the word. The word hound implies hunter and nobility. It seems that no creature escapes the class system in our society.

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4 Responses to “What’s in a Name Part 1: Cur, Dog and Hound”


  1. GREAT START! REALLY LIKIN HHE LOOK OF THE BLOG.


  2. […] 4, 2008 For all one of you reading along, last time we established that while in modern English “hound” can mean “dog”, it has […]

  3. Sam Says:

    I typically do not do commenting. however thanks for this great post and trying forward to more.

  4. Alton Loden Says:

    Many thanks for that, lasted just over a cup of coffee for me to read!


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