The intriguing pervasiveness of ‘dogfish’

I’ve ranted enough recently, so it’s time for a nice break in the form of some etymology. Currently at university I am doing a group anthropology project on the history of dogs, how they relate to humans and vice-versa. Naturally, I asked to do the section on language. I’ve come across a number of interesting origins of sayings – for example, ‘the dog’s bollocks’ is said to come from Northern Meccano factories, where some witty production line workers realised what you got when you swap the first letters of ‘box deluxe’ around and say it in a northern accent – however, my favourite is the origin of dogfish.

I’d always wondered if their name had anything to do with dogs, and a little research shows it does. Apparently we called them such because, like dogs, these small sharks are vicious and hunt in packs. However, what I was more interested to find was that it was not only the English who hit on this metaphor. Right back in antiquity, Pliny referred to sharks as ‘canis marinus’, and similar constructions are found across Europe and Asia Minor. Italian has ‘pescecane’ (fishdog), French, ‘chien de mer’ (sea dog), Dutch, ‘hondshaai’ (houndshark), Turkish, ‘köpekbalığı’ (dogfish), Russian, ‘морская собака’ (sea dog) are only some. The fact that so many peoples have hit on this idea of naming a vicious hunting animal after a dog even though it is nothing like it shows how we regard (or did regard) dogs themselves.

Interestingly, as a side note, the word dog itself was almost certainly something like ‘kuntos’ in Proto Indo-European and was an extension of ‘kwon’ (tooth). Whatever we think of them now, it certainly appears that in history we saw dogs primarily as vicious hunters rather than canine companions.

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The Condition of the Left in England

'A grotesque mixture of Enlightenment Liberalism, One-Nation Conservatism and Socialism.' Skeptic and linguaphile.

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