What’s in a Name Part 2: Greyhound, Gazehound and Sighthound

October 4, 2008

For all one of you reading along, last time we established that while in modern English “hound” can mean “dog”, it has an ancient connotation of “noble hunting animal”. This time ’round I want to look at the most common English words for “coursing dog”: greyhound, gazehound and sighthound.

The eye of a retired NGA greyhound.

The eye of a retired NGA greyhound.

Sighthound, gazehound and greyhound are all composite nouns:

  • sight + hound
  • gaze + hound
  • grey + hound

We’ve already established that hound means “hunter”. What do the prefix modifiers mean? Sighthound and gazehound are synonyms. Sighthound is just a more modern form. Gaze is a somewhat archaic word for “to look”. It originated in 14th century Middle English (Anglo-Saxon) as gasen.

  • Middle English (Anglo-Saxon): gasen [to look]
    • English: gaze

sighthound
noun

  1. a hound that runs or courses game by sight rather than scent

synonyms: gazehound

I don’t like these two words because they don’t make very much sense. All hounds can see and use their eyes to hunt. There is a natural suite of hunting motor patterns in canids:

  1. orient (track)
  2. eye (stare)
  3. stalk
  4. chase
  5. grab-bite
  6. kill-bite

These behaviors occur in order. Foxhounds and Beagles will definitely eye and chase a fleeing prey animal. Greyhounds will definitely sniff around excitedly at deer spoor hoping to find the critter to chase. I don’t like the term sighthound. It’s lame and it creates a wrong impression of the behavior of these animals. In modern times large swaths of society are divorced from any sort of real-world experience with hunting. I have a hard time believing that people were really so confused in the 16th century that they believed that cursorial dogs hunt only by sight.The interesting thing, though, is that the word gazehound exists at all. It is so wrong and there was already a really good word in English for a coursing dog: greyhound.

According to the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, gazehound was coined between 1560 and 1570 in modern English. The word greyhound is at least a thousand years older and has its roots in Old English and Proto-Indo-European.

Why are greyhounds called grey? They are most commonly fawn, not agouti grey. The grey in greyhound has nothing to do with color. It derives from the Proto-Indo-European word for “shine” or “twinkle”.

  • Proto-Indo-European: g’her [shine, twinkle]
    • Old English: grig
      • Middle English: grig [lively, bright, fair]

 

  • Middle English: grighund [lively, bright, fair + hunting dog]
    • English: greyhound

Basically, greyhound means a particularly lively and good-looking hound; perhaps the flashy hound that runs faster than the others and is most often successful with the take.

Why did someone decide to invent the word gazehound in the mid-16th century if they already had such a nice word in greyhound? I don’t know, so it’s time to go off the deep end into more-or-less pure speculation.

The early and middle16th century was the reigh of Suleiman the Magnificent who presided over a great expansion of the Ottoman Empire. So what? Under Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire expanded into germanic territories of modern Austria, Hungary and the Balkans as well as pretty much all of North Africa and Greece. English traders could not possibly have avoided interaction with Turkish culture and perhaps been exposed to their hunting dogs (which I’ll just refer to as saluqi for convenience).

In her book Gazehounds: the Search for Truth, Connie Miller suggests that the real origin of the prefix in gazehound is not gaze but ghazal. Ghazal is Arabic/Persian/Urdu for gazelle. I think she’s close but even better is the Turkish: gazel. Saluqi are hunting dogs that can take gazelle. Rather than gaze + hound the original coinage might have been gazel + hound. It’s easy to see how the ‘l’ could be dropped in correspondence and retelling. What Elizabethan Englishman ever heard of a gazel? I like to think that sighthound is a derivation of a giant malapropism.

On the whole, I find a lot of charm in the word greyhound and none in sighthound nor gazehound. Perhaps I should not be irritated when people stop me on the street walking my Azawakh and ask me if he is a greyhound. They are very fair and lively dogs.

Sub-adult Azawakh play-chasing an Azawakh puppy.

Sub-adult Azawakh play-chasing an Azawakh puppy.

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2 Responses to “What’s in a Name Part 2: Greyhound, Gazehound and Sighthound”


  1. really likin’ that one…glad you finally came around on the sighthound thing….wink


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