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Friday, August 14, 2015

Be a pet


Your pet is watching you
A Wordlady correspondent has inquired whether the past tense of the verb "pet" is "petted" or "pet". This got me wondering about the origin of the word "pet", which is so unlike the word for our little furry or feathered darlings in other European languages:

  • French: animal de compagnie (companion animal)
  • German: Haustier (house animal, no companionship guaranteed!)
  • Italian: animale domestico (domestic animal)
  • Spanish: mascota (mascot)

But the Scandinavians have the best names:

Swedish: sällskapsdjur party animal  

with the all-time winner being the 

Danish  and Norwegian:kæledyr /kjæledyr
literally, cuddle animal  or pamper animal (apparently, but I will have to check this with my Danish cousin)

So where on earth did English get its word from? 

In Medieval English we have some examples of "puppy" (derived from the French word for "doll") being used for a pet dog, and even the delightful "gentilhound". Cats, caged birds, squirrels, rabbits, and even badgers were also kept as pets, but there was no word in English to describe the relationship.

But in the 1500s, English acquired from Scots Gaelic and Irish the word peata, which designated a tame animal, especially a lamb reared by hand (maternal sheep mortality probably being not uncommon on Scottish crags).  By the 1700s, the word was being used of other types of animals kept for pleasure:

1710   R. Steele Tatler No. 266. ⁋2   The other has transferred the amorous Passions of her first Years to the Love of Cronies, Petts and Favourites [a dog, monkey, squirrel, parrot].
And we find that animal lovers in the 18th century were as unable to resist a cute beastie as they are now:
1788   B. Sheridan Let. 22 Oct.  v. 127   He is..playing with a Dormouse he made me a present of... Tho' not desirous of keeping any more Pets I could not refuse him.
How many of us have uttered words like those! 

At the same time, still in Scotland, the word took on the meaning of "a person or child who is indulged, spoiled, or treated as a favourite", and also, less negatively, as a term of endearment (fans of the British TV series Vera, set in Newcastle in the north of England, will notice how often the eponymous detective addresses suspects as "pet", usually before she throws them in the slammer).

Already by the early 1600s "pet" was being used as a verb (again, this was originally a Scottish usage). Yes, it's one of THOSE. I know I rant about this a lot, but I will keep ranting until the "you shouldn't use nouns as verbs" myth is eradicated from this earth. Like all other verbs derived from nouns, it is regular, so its past and past participle are "petted", not "pet". If anyone uses "pet" as the past tense, they are probably being led astray by the similar three-letter verbs "set", "bet", and "let", which are all irregular.
By now, some of you are thinking about the sexual sense of "petting" (I know you are). For that you can blame the Americans, the Oxford English Dictionary's first evidence of the term being from F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1920.  

For the origins of the word "tabby", click here.
For "marmalade", click here.
For "ginger", click here.
For "Tom", click here.
For "calico", click here

For "tuxedo", click here



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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.