You Are At: AllSands Home > Pets > Dogs > Understanding breed of dog origins
Linguists refer to mistaken beliefs about word origins as "folk etymologies." For instance, suppose someone thought a chow chow dog was called that because it loved to eat, or thought a spitz was called that because he spit, or an affenspinscher was called that because he pinched. These mistaken beliefs are examples of folk etymology (the study of word origins).

However, this leads us to another issue. Every day words often have hidden or unusual origins to which we never give a thought. Take the case of words relating to dogs, for instance. Why do we sometimes call a dog a mutt? Would you be surprised to learn that "mutt" comes from mutton head? In other words, the original idea was a mutt was a stupid dog with a head like a sheep. A mongrel, on the other hand, refers to a dog that is a mixture of some sort, its origins harking back to Old English "gemang," meaning mixture.

Pooch is a common way to refer to a dog. Why? No one knows. The origins of pooch remain a mystery. A cur, however, comes from the old word "curr," which means to make a low sound much like a cat mewing. The essential idea was that a cur was a dog of unferocious characteristics.

In some parts of the United States, certain dogs are contemptuously referred to as "fice" or "feist." Interestingly, these terms come from the old verb "feisting," which owes its origins to the Old English verb "fisting" (pronounced with a long "I" sound), which meant to break wind. Obviously, it was not a particularly complimentary reference to a dog.

What we name our dogs has had some variation over the years. "Spot" and "Fido" have pretty much faded to be replaced by upscale monikers like "Hunter" and "McKenzie," but what of Rin Tin Tin? And who exactly was Rin Tin Tin?

Rinty was discovered by American army corporal Lee Duncan while exploring a German war-dog station immediately after WWI. Duncan named one of the German shepherd puppies he found "Nanette" and the other "Rin Tin Tin" after tiny finger dolls that French soldiers carried during the war for good luck. Rinty, legendary for courage and intelligence, broke into the movies in 1922 in "The Man From Hell's River." Subsequently, Rin Tin Tin became known as the dog that saved Warner Brothers from going broke. Starring in over 22 movies, Rinty earned a thousand dollars a week, had his own private limo, and was regularly fed Chauteabriand.

Another curious aspect of dogs and names is the various breeds. Sometimes the name of a breed is transparent--for example, pointer or Portugese water dog or Scottish terrier--but other times a mystery surrounds the name.

Take, for example, the affenspinscher. This dog derives its name from the German word "Affa," or ape, plus "pinscher" terrier. In other words, the affenspinscher had characteristics, possibly the way its face looked, that reminded whoever named it of a monkey.

The Rottweiler did not get its name from a rotten disposition. Instead, it's a geographic name. Rottweil is a city in southwest Germany. Another German breed has an unusual name: the Doberman pinscher was named after the originator of the breed, Ludwig D. Doberman, a 19th century German dog breeder. For "pinscher," half of the name refers to a terrier and comes from a region of Austria noted for its dog breeding, Pinzgau. Another dog of Germanic origin is the Weimaraner. In this case, the breed's name is a reference to the short-lived Weimar Republic in Germany 1919-1933, prior to Hitler's reign.

Surprisingly, what we often refer to as a "French" poodle is actually a dog of Germanic background. Poodle is a shortening of "pudelhund," and a pudelhund is a water dog, its name derived from "pudeln" meaning splash and "hund" meaning dog. Dachshund is another Deutsch fellow. Of course, the hund part of his name again means dog, but the dachs element has to do with its original role as a hunter of badgers, from the German word "dachs," meaning badger. There is the schnauzer: its name comes from the German word for snout, a reference to its prominent muzzle. Finally, the spitz, another German breed, comes from the word "spitz" referring to a pointed face.

A number of dogs' names came about in not so obvious ways from the land in which they originated. A Dalmatian's name comes from Dalmatia, the Adriatic coast of what was once Yugoslavia but today is Croatia. A Chihuahua is a Mexican breed; Chihuahua is a state in northern Mexico. A sheltie comes from the Norwegian word for the Shetland Islands off the coast of Scotland. A Pekingese comes from Peking in China, and a chow chow is another dog of Chinese origin from the province of Canton in China while a saluki owes its name to the old Arabian city of Salug.

Also, there are some dogs with not so obvious origins to their names. A St. Bernard got its name from the hospice in Switzerland where these dogs were first bred. A basset's name comes from French "basette" of low stature. A Welsh corgi gets its name from its Welsh origins. In Welsh, "cor" refers to dwarf and "gi" refers to dog.

In the more exotic category, a bichon frise (pronounced beeshon freeze) is simply French for curly-haired lap dog. A shih-tzu (pronouced shitzu) is Chinese for lion dog. The Chinese were well aquainted with lions and thus, the naming of the shih-tzu dog was not an absurd mistake. According to Mr. Victor Joris from the AKC Gazette, "The history of the Tibetan Lion Dogs" is interwoven with the tenets of Buddhism, which originated in India. The lion was closely associated with Buddhism, but the lion was not indigenous to China, so the Chinese and the Tibetan lamas bred their toy dogs to resemble lions." The word "resemble" does not necessarily mean physical appearence, but it also refers to one's manner. The shih-tzu's overall appearance is that of pride, which can also be associated with that of the lion.

And finally, there is the schipperke, which gets its name from the Dutch words meaning little boatman, a reference to the fact that these dogs were originally used as watchdogs on boats.