A dog's life in language
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A dog's life in language

A dog's life in language
In a world where dogs are unclean in some cultures and on the menu in others, the British Isles is one place where a dog’s life might not be so bad with snuzzle an interpretation for the act of poking around with one's nose, as dogs do. More vivid still is the description of bloodhound jowels; “flew the pendulous corner of the upper lip”

Horses, too, are part of our national life and new to me are brills for the hair on a horse’s eyelids and jipping meaning staining part of a horse with Indian ink to conceal a blemish. Meanwhile, British sheep have brought us chaser for a ram that has only one testicle and morling which translates as wool taken from a dead sheep.

Some birds we keep as hunters or pets, some we breed to mow down with guns, a few we eat: turdoid akin to a thrush; ostreger a keeper of goshawks; tercel the male of a hawk, especially of the peregrine falcon and the goshawk; hack eagles before they become acclimatised and can hunt on their own; jollop to gobble as a turkey.

But they’re always worth listening to, even if our attempts to interpret their particular cries are not always that accurate. We can use valentine - to greet with song at mating-time (said of birds) and chavish - the sound of many birds chirping together, or many people chatting at once.

With one glorious exception, insects are not much help in our national diet (though in other parts of the world they eat fried grasshopper and chocolate-coated ants) with warp the Tudor-Stuart word for the working themselves forward of bees in flight and dulosis a Modern Latin word for the enslavement of ants by ants.

Even without the legendary unicorn, or Lewis Carroll’s jubjub, ‘an imaginary bird of a ferocious, desperate and occasionally charitable nature, noted for its excellence when cooked’, our world is indeed full of curious creatures we have mowdiwarp - a mole; a little gentleman in black velvet a mole (a tribute to the mole that raised the hill that caused King William to fall from his horse Sorrell in 1702 and die two weeks later and was a Jacobite toast during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-14)); pilser - the moth or fly that runs into a candle flame and natterjack - a curiously warty, pop-eyed toad with a bright yellow line down its back.

And they have strange parts that are sometimes worth noting: paxwax - the strong tendon in an animal’s neck; dewlap - the pendulous skin under the throat of cattle, dogs etc.; cnidocil - a stinging hair and acnestis that part of an animal (between the shoulders and lower back) that it cannot reach to scratch.

And their behaviours are interesting too...

Pronking translates as a word for leaping through the air, as an antelope does

Whiffling, twitchers’ jargon for geese descending rapidly from a height once the decision to land has been made, involving fast side-slipping first one way and then the other


...to say nothing of their mating habits:

epigamic attracting the opposite sex at breeding time

clicket the copulation of foxes

syndyasmian of the state of pairing together sexually (of animals during procreation and the rearing of offspring)

amplexus (a word specifically applied from Latin) the mating embrace of a frog and a toad


And then there’s the extraordinary number of animal idioms, second only perhaps to nautical idioms, which exist in our wonderful language. With the more celebrated being White Elephant; Red Rag to a Bull; Flea in One’s Ear; Go the Whole Hog; Mad March Hare; Let the Cat out of the Bag; Have Kittens; Raining Cats and Dogs; Cat’s Nine Lives; No Room to Swing a Cat; Cheshire Cat; In the Doghouse; Straight from the Horse's Mouth; Kill Two Birds with One Stone; Rat Race and Spring Chicken.

  • Last updated: 28 April 2016 08:48
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