Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Language of Dogs: Cur and Tyke

18th century Cheezburger?
Satirical etching that portrays Sir Roger Curtis as Lord Howe's dog
The association between man and dog is an ancient one, perhaps even extending back beyond the birth of language as we know it. But the words used to describe our canine companions, have changed and evolved, every bit as much as the dogs themselves. My next couple of blog posts consider some of the terms used to refer to dogs over the centuries.

The earliest way of referring to canines was either as a  dog or hound.‘Dog’ is one of a group of old English words ending in ‘-g’ that refer to animals – such as pig, hog, stag and even earwig! ‘Hound’ has common roots in a number of European countries – such as German ‘hund’ and the Dutch ‘hond’. In the Middle Ages especially, there were a number of disparaging terms for dog. According to the Oxford English Dictionary a ‘cur’ is defined as:
A dog: a worthless, low-bred, or snappish dog. Formerly (and still sometimes dialectally) applied without depreciation, esp. to a watch-dog or shepherd's dog.

The first recorded usage of ‘cur’ is in by Chaucer in 1385, and mentions crop up in literature from pretty much every century.
‘The most Staunch and best Hunting Hounds; (all babling and flying Curs being left at home).’
1684   R. Howlett
‘I am hunted every barking Curr about the House.’
1712   J. Arbuthnot
From around the 17th century, the word ‘cur’ became used as a term of contempt for certain people:
Cur: Surly, ill-bred, low, or cowardly fellow OED,
As cited is this quote from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.
‘Out dog, out curre: thou driu'st me past the bounds Of maidens patience’
Shakespeare, 1600

And also ‘Coriolanus’
‘What would you have, you Curres, That like nor Peace, nor Warre?’

Somewhat confusingly, the OED definition states that a ‘cur’ could also mean a guard dog.
Cur, a good, sharp watchdog. The word does not refer, in the least to low breeding.
1884   R. Holland – Words from the County of Chester.

An alternative word dating from the Middle Ages with similar meaning to cur is ‘tyke’ – this was especially associated with the Yorkshire dialect, where a ‘tyke’ could be used interchangeably with ‘dog’. Other counties were not so forgiving and the term was largely disparaging.
Tyke: A dog; usually in depreciation or contempt, a low-bred or coarse dog, a cur, a mongrel.

References can be found in writings from the 15th century onwards.
‘He barkis lyk an midding tyk’
1513   W. DUNBAR
and my favourite;
‘The mad randy gipsy, that had..been hounded like a stray tike from parish to parish.’
1829   SCOTT
And finally, it is interesting to reflect that more modern expressions such as dog-sitter, dog-napper and doggy-day-care imply a similar importance to a child. So next week, I look at some of the affectionate language used through the centuries to refer to our lap-dog companions.

1 comment:

  1. My husband and I are dog lovers, and we recently lost our wonderful dog companion of fifteen years to simple old age. I have always wondered why historically in many cultures "dog" is such a disparaging term. My experience of dogs is that they are full of unconditional love and loyalty.


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