February 28, 2024

Words of the Month - Petting our Pets

         The word pet, referring to a domestic animal kept primarily for companionship, is quite a new one in English.  Originally a Scottish and northern English dialect word in the sixteenth century, and not appearing in other English dialects until the mid-eighteenth century, its origin is unknown.  The best assumption is that it is related in some way to petty meaning “small,” which in turn comes from French petit.  The usage of the word pet for a favorite, spoiled child is attested slightly earlier than its use for an animal, but it seems equally likely that animals were the primary usage and the record is simply not complete.
        For me the burning question this raises is, what did people call their pets before they had the word pet?  And I can’t find this answer at all, much to my frustration.  (I did discover the word cade, which is a new one for me.  It means “a pet or tame animal, especially a lamb raised by hand.”  This dates to the late fifteenth century, so it’s quite a bit earlier than pet in most English dialects, but I have no idea how widespread it was.  I also don’t know whether it’s still in use at all today, seeing as I’ve never heard or seen it before.)  My best guess is that people didn’t really refer to pets as a class, but simply named the specific creature in a particular circumstance, such as spaniel, cat, goldfinch, ermine, monkey, etc.
        So let’s look at the two most popular of those pets.  The word cat is quite ancient, dating back to Old English, and its various forms are nearly universal in European languages.  Although I always think of the Latin word for cat as feles, in the first century this was generally replaced by catta.  This, in turn, probably comes from Afro-Asiatic roots, since after all, cats had been domestic pets in Egypt since about 2000 BCE, while they were not particularly familiar as pets in classical Greece and Rome.
        Dog, on the other hand, has a slightly twistier path.  It does date back to late Old English, but seems originally to have referred to a specific large, powerful breed.  No one knows why it pushed aside the original Old English general term hund, essentially trading places so that now hound refers to specific breeds, while dog is the general term.  Oddly, Spanish perro and Polish pies are also of unknown origin.  Why are cats universally cats, but dogs are called a whole variety of often-unexplained words?  Is it because cats are all pretty universally similar while there’s an enormously wide array of different dog breeds?  I don’t know.
        It’s also worth noting that while people have enjoyed domestic animals for companionship for millenia, throughout most of history, most domestic animals had other purposes which (except perhaps for the very wealthy) were primary.  Most dogs and cats were working animals.  That’s another reason that I’m guessing that there may not really have been a word for “pet” before the word pet.  Still, if anyone has further information on this, I’d love to see it!
        Finally, the verb pet first meant “to treat as a pet,” and arrived about a century after the noun.  The meaning “to stroke” isn’t attested until 1818, well after the noun had gained currency throughout English.  So yes, we pet our cats because they’re our pets, and not the other way around!  On the other hand, we could pat the bunny about a hundred years earlier.  That word seems to be unrelated, coming from a noun that originally meant “a blow or stroke” (so yes, we can also stroke our pets), and eventually came to be specifically “a light tap.”  I can’t help suspecting that the verb meaning of pet was helped along in its shift to “stroke” by the similarity with pat.
        Do you have a pet or pets?  And do you like to pet them?

[Pictures: Puppy Love, rubber block print by AEGNydam, 2012;

Cat in a Box, rubber block print by AEGN, 1999;

Coy, rubber block print by AEGN, 2023;

Old English Sheepdog, rubber block print by AEGN, 2013.]


MFH said...

We've always been had by cats. One doesn't *have* a cat, we are the cat's domestic servants.

Bonsai, nicknamed Trixie, is a long-haired tortoise-shell who still, after 13 years, hisses at my ankles if I appear too suddenly. She is attached to Michelle and allows her to groom her fur each evening but has never condescended to be picked up or "cuddled." And yet, Michelle dotes on her in the manner to which all cats seem to be accustomed (and demand).

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

MFH, that sounds like the Egyptian model of feline pet-hood: expecting to be treated as a manifestation of a goddess!

Anna Greens said...

It's heartwarming to be reminded of the simple yet profound joy that comes from bonding with our pets through affectionate gestures like petting.
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Nadia Adams said...

Your words beautifully capture the mutual benefits of this interaction, highlighting how it not only strengthens the bond between pet and owner but also contributes to our own well-being, promoting relaxation and reducing stress.
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