Pig, dog, hog, and other etymologies from the farm
Old MacDonald had a farm. And on that farm he had a dog. And a frog, hog, pig, and stag. Old MacDonald even had an earwig. Dog, earwig, frog, hog, pig, and stag – as well as the more obscure haysugge (‘hedge-sparrow’) and teg (‘yearling sheep’) – form a curious set of words in the English language. You’ve probably already noticed some features they have in common: they refer to some everyday animals and end in the letter g. Could there be more to this?
Let’s take a look at the record. In Old English, these words were recorded or are reconstructed in the following forms: docga (dog), earwicga (earwig) or simply wicga (wig), frogga (frog), hogg (hog), *picga (pig), *stacga (stag), sucga (hedge-sparrow), and *tagga or *tegga (*teg).
A few notes are helpful here. First, an asterisk indicates a reconstructed form. This means that the word is not attested as such in writing but is so hypothesized based on other evidence. For the history of the word stag, for example, scholars haven’t located *stacga in the actual written record of English, but this is the basic noun form we would linguistically expect to find in Old English. Second, Old English spelling can be very challenging, especially when it comes to letters c and g and the sounds they represent. For this set of words, the cluster –cg- is treated as –gg-.
What is gemination?
What did this cluster sound like? Linguists call this –gg- a medial geminate. Medial means it occurs in the middle of a word. Geminate means it’s twinned. Many English words are spelled with double consonants, like doggy, but are pronounced the same as if spelled with a single letter. Geminate consonants, also called long consonants, are special: both letters get pronounced.
English has essentially lost gemination within words, but it does occur between words. Take, for instance, the dog goes outside. Do you hear that pause, that extra length, you make between dog and goes? This is gemination. We would expect to hear such a double g sound in the historic pronunciation of docga.
So, what’s the big deal about this gemination? Well, philologists can trace other Old English geminates from earlier Germanic sources, but they can’t account for -gg- in this way. No one is quite certain where it comes from. This means we’ve left the farm and have wandered into the woods to discover where some very basic and common animal words came from – fundamental words like dog and pig, which number among some of the first children learn to read, even say.
Fortunately, the late (and aptly named) philologist Richard M. Hogg has made some additional observations to help us out. As we’ve seen, these words form a semantic group (i.e., animals) as well as a morphological one (so-called weak masculine nouns). They also had historically more common synonyms: Anglo-Saxons could speak of hound (hund) for dog; swine (swín) for pig; hart (heorut) for stag; sparrow (spearwe) for haysugge; and sheep (scéap) or ewe (eowu) for teg, or a “yearling sheep.” Alongside frog (frogga), Old English had frosc (later, frosh or frosk); frogga is ultimately related to this frosc, as we’ll see. And while Hogg doesn’t treat it, I suspect worm (wyrm) may have served as the synonym for earwig.
Where does this leave us? Pet names, which are also known as hypocorisms. A hypocoristic form of Robert, for example, is Bobby. We give pet names to close and familiar people – or creatures – to express affection, intimacy, endearment, or perhaps just for ease and speed. In Modern English, we might add a diminutive -y or –ie, as in puppy or Susie. Frequently, pet names are shorter or feature shorter vowels: intimacy breeds frequency, frequency breeds economy, and economy saves time. Dogs, frogs, pigs, and their critter counterparts were part of the everyday affairs of the Anglo-Saxons, who could express that, apparently, with the geminated –gg-.
As hypocoristic forms, they were informal and colloquial, unlikely to make it into many early manuscripts recording more serious or literary matters, the OED notes. This may be underscored by the fact that many of the words appear late in the record of what is considered Old English, and many of the earliest accounts of them are part of personal names, surnames, or place names.
Yet most survived, widespread across spoken English as they indeed must have been. Dog, for instance, supplanted hound by the 16th century, whose cognates prevail across the Indo-European languages.
Down on the etymological farm
While their ultimate origins aren’t certain, there are still other details that flesh out the etymological picture of these words.
Many European languages borrowed the word dog to refer specifically to mastiffs or bulldogs, which were from or associated with Great Britain. As the OED notes, efforts have been made to trace dog back to Indo-European roots for ‘run’ and even ‘to become unconscious,’ likening a little heap on the ground to a sleeping pup.
According to the OED, the word pig is attested only once in Old English (in the Antwerp Glossary) where it appears as part of a compound, picbred (pig bread)—a rather colourful gloss for the Latin glans, ‘acorn’. Close Dutch cognates for pig suggest that both languages perhaps borrowed the word from some earlier common source. Philologists Ernest Weekley, Walter Skeat, and Eric Partridge add that pig referred to young porkers while swine were adults.
Did these words originally make distinctions between different types of animals that fell off with changing societal circumstances? An urban office worker may not need to register these distinctions in language, but for a rural farmer or husbander, the difference between a young and an old pig is still very important today. The history of hog may underscore such a phenomenon. The OED observes that it first named ‘castrated male pigs’ that were ‘reared for slaughter’. But the record also shows hog extended to boars in their second years and young sheep, suggesting that the word’s original ‘application may have emphasized the age or condition of the animal’, the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology concludes.
Meanwhile, stag may have originally denoted any male animal in its prime, especially as suggested by the Old Norse steggi, a ‘male bird’ or ‘male cat’. The word may be cognate to sting and stick, themselves from Indo-European roots for the same. These cognates may evoke antlers, but philologist Ernest Klein gets straight to a different point: ‘provided with a male organ’.
Earwig indeed joins ear and wig, though the latter has nothing to do with fake hair. Instead, this wig – historically an ‘insect’, ‘beetle’, or ‘worm’ – may be related to wiggle. And the connection to ear? The bug was commonly, though erroneously, believed to have crawled into people’s ears. French has perce-oreille (‘ear-pierce’) and German Ohrwurm (‘ear worm’).
As noted before, of all the words we’ve been investigating, frog does not have a clear animal counterpart, though it does have many variant forms. The OED relates it to the Old English frosc, with cognates across other Germanic languages. This frosc may derive from an Indo-European root for ‘to hop’ or ‘jump’, though connections to froth have also been made, what with the amphibian’s slimy skin.
As dog, pig, and the other geminate species we’ve studied here show, sometimes the simplest of English words can have histories that are hard to tame.