Etymology of the Day: Puppy

It’s been another busy week for politics in the US, and so today, National Puppy Day, couldn’t come at a better time. So, too, the origin of the word puppy. It’s pretty adorable.   

Puppies! (Pixabay)


The Oxford English Dictionary first finds puppy in the 1486 Book of St. Albans, an anthology of essays on gentlemen’s pastimes, which, back then, included hawking, hunting, and heraldry. One passage notes: “Smale ladies popis that beere a way the flees.” The earliest puppies, apparently, were not only flea-ridden but also women’s lapdogs, regardless of age.

While the etymology isn’t puppy-proof, most think puppy patters from the French poupée, a “doll” or “toy,” pet dogs being likened to playthings and echoed in today’s toy dog. On the basis of lapdogs’ small size, puppy had nestled into its modern sense, “young dog,” by 1567, replacing the earlier term, whelp. Early Modern English had fun with puppy, though, as the term also derided a “foolish young man” and a “promiscuous woman.” Modern English has played with puppy, too, such as US 20th-century slang for “feet,” “breasts,” or some valued “thing,” e.g., let’s take this puppy out for a spin

The French poupée ultimately derives from the Latin pūpa, a “doll” or “girl.” A diminutive form of poupée gives English poppet and puppet. Diminutive forms of Latin’s pūpa, meanwhile, show up in both senses of pupil. A school pupil originally referred to an “orphan” or “ward” when it entered the record in the late 14th century. And when you look into someone’s pupil (1420s)? You can see a tiny reflection of yourself, like a “little doll,” or pūpilla in Latin – a delightful puppy of an etymology.

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