I could have written about Zuckerberg today, with the Facebook CEO in the congressional hot seat. His surname literally means “sugar mountain” in German—and I don’t think that’ll be the next Farmville or Candy Crush any time soon.
I thought to write about raid, which the FBI did to Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen on Monday. Raid originates as a Scottish variant on road.
Instead, I settled on pet. April 11th is, apparently, National Pet Day, “celebrating pets and encouraging adoption” since 2005, according to the organizer’s website. The day, as quirky and numerous as these random unofficial holidays are in our social media feeds, also invites some welcome etymological escapism.
Little word, “little” etymology?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), pet is found in 16th-century Scottish, northern English, and northern Irish dialects as a word for a “lamb,” especially one reared by hand (cade lamb). The term is recorded for a “tame or domestic animal kept for pleasure or companionship,” as the OED nicely puts it, by 1710, applied to “a spoiled or favored person” by 1720.
The derived verb, to pet, emerges in the 1600s.
The origin of pet is disputed. Barnhart ultimately suggests a reasonable connection to petty—a petty (“little”) lamb becomes shortened to a pet lamb, las we might well imagine. Found in the 1300s, petty is from the French petit, of obscure origin, though once suggested to have Celtic roots related to piece.
Skeat proposes for pet the French peton, a “little plant stalk.”
As of its latest Third Edition, the OED takes the Scottish cue and traces pet to the Scottish Gaelic peata, “a tame animal,” with an analog in Irish.
The dictionary then goes on, perhaps uncharacteristic of its usual etymological caution, to suggest peata is related to Latin’s suescere, “to become used to” (mansuetude, mastiff, and custom are so derived) via the Proto-Indo-European *(s)we-, source of self, as we saw a few years back on the blog.
A pet is an animal, if this etymology is correct, that’s gotten used to us.
So comfortable, in fact, that they may let out a wee pet, or “fart,” or get into a pet, or “fit of peevishness,” though those words are unrelated.