Wednesday, 20 August 2014

A Cur : A Compliment Not a Curse

"A dog of mixed type, especially one that is frightening or fierce." Oxford Dictionary

Times and language change.
Last night, whilst reading "Anecdotes of Dogs" – a charming book written by Edward Jesse in 1858, this was brought home to me in the table of contents. Reading through chapters listing dog breeds, nestled between "the Great Danish dog" and "the Lurcher", was "the Cur".

I am more familiar with "cur" being used in historical fiction as an unflattering curse, as in "You cur, unhand that woman!" but it seems in Victorian times (and presumably pre-dating this) a cur was a type of purpose bred cattle droving dog. Admittedly a cur was of mixed ancestry, but he was a noble working dog all the same.

I decided to skip straight to the chapter on curs, and indeed found out that this forgotten strain of dogs were shot through with fine instincts and loyalty to their owners- far removed from the modern implication.  

The first (true) story related by Mr. Jesse concerns a merchant's shop in London. A large box properly labelled and seemingly in order, was delivered one evening to stay their overnight and be shipped off with other goods in the morning. A customer and his cur entered the shop whereupon the dog set to sniffing the box and then barking at it with intent to draw attention. This led the merchant to investigate the box, at which point he found a boy hidden inside tasked with the job of letting in his fellow felons after dark, in order to plunder the shop.

Another moving story is that of a pregnant cur. This bitch belonged to John Lang, Esq, who used her to work his cattle. One day, large with pup, she went into labor whilst working the cattle. She gave birth on the moor, concealed the puppies in a gorse bush and went back to work herding the cattle back home with all diligence. Only once had she handed over her charge did she return to the puppies and brought them home by the scruff, one by one. In Mr. Jesse's account he notes how Mr. Lang preserved the entire litter so as not to distress so faithful an animal (this seems to imply that he might otherwise have destroyed some of them!)
The gates to Portsmouth dockyard - circa 1901
Our final tale involves the aptly named "Trusty". This cur belongs to a workman employed in Portsmouth dockyard. The man's wife prepared his meal every day, tied it in a cloth and placed it in a hand-basket. The dog was trained to carry the basket by the handle and cover a distance of a mile or so to deliver it to his master. If the dog tired, he carefully placed the basket on the ground whilst he rested, but growled at anyone who approached. Once he got to the dockyard, he had to wait until a porter noticed him and opened the gate.
Knocking off time at Harland and Wolff shipyard, Belfast

 On finding his master, by all accounts man and dog were equally enamored of one another, and the man shared his food with Trusty. Once finished, the laborer repacked the basket and the dog delivered it safe home again.

There now! Put's a different complexion of the word "cur" doesn't it? Based on these examples it should be a compliment, not a curse. 


  1. I believe that the term 'cur dog' is still used by cattlemen today. A good cow dog is hard to find.

    1. I'm in the UK and to the best of my knowledge "cur" is used as an insult, along the lines of bastard. Whilst researching this article I did indeed come across references to cattle-dogs as curs - I presume this is a good example of how US and UK English differs. I am curious to know how widespread the use of "cur" is in the US, whether it is common parlance or used occasionally.
      thank you so much for visiting, Pepper
      G x

  2. Where I live in Texas, curs are dogs that just run loose, are half-feral, and are definitely up to no good. They terrorize people and farm animals alike. There were two near our farm for a while that my husband always called "those vicious curs."

    Just to confuse the matter, however, our two cattle dogs are half Black Mouth Cur and half Australian Cattle Dog. We love our Curs and would never call them curs. Our boys named them Snickerdoodle and Macaroon, so the names, and the dogs, are decidedly not vicious ;)

    Ah, the vagaries of the English language...

    1. Oh, thanks for that, Renee.
      Yes, I saw pictures of Black Mouth Curs- as if that is a specific breed. Must be a hang over from the days of Curs being a herding breed then. Just shows that in terms of character, one size doesn't fit all.
      Love the names Snickerdoodle and Macaroon - your boys have great imaginations to come up with those.
      G x


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