The shifting landscape of language

At Kill Zone Blog, this post by Sue Coletta: Word Porn

It’s fun to see how words change over time. Their meanings transform, expand, and even metamorphose into a whole new meaning….

For example, by semantic narrowing, as a word becomes more restricted in meaning over time. I like the example of “mete” meaning “food” and only gradually coming to take on the current meaning. That’s rather interesting, and in fact it has always struck me as strange that “meat” today is often used to exclude chicken and almost always used to exclude fish. That’s always puzzled me.

However, this is the example from the post that REALLY caught my eye, because it annoys me every time I see it:

“The history of the word hound in English neatly illustrates this process. The word was originally pronounced hund in English, and it was the generic word for any kind of dog at all. This original meaning is retained, for example, in German, where the word Hund simply means ‘dog.’ Over the centuries, however, the meaning of hund in English has become restricted to just those dogs used to chase game in the hunt, such as beagles…”

The reason this annoys all right-thinking people is that when it was recognized by the AKC, the Norwegian Elkhound, a fine spitz breed, got stuffed for NO GOOD REASON into the Hound Group because of its name. Any fool can see it belongs in the Working Group or the Nonsporting Group, with the other spitz breeds, and NOT in the Hound group with the beagles, spaniels, retrievers, pointers, and other gundogs.

What I really think we should have is a Spitz group, like other breed registries, but I’m not holding my breath. Spitz breeds can be used for hunting, like gundogs, or herding, or guarding, or all kinds of things. There are so many of them and they are such an obvious and distinctive lineage that they deserve their own group. Spitz breeds include, in no special order:

Akita, Alaskan Malamute, Siberian husky, Samoyed, Norwegian Elkhound, Keeshond, American Eskimo, Finnish Spitz, Schipperke, Chow, Shiba, Swedish Vallhund, Icelandic Sheepdog, Swedish Lapphund, and Pomeranian. There are plenty of others, but I think all of these are AKC recognized now, and I don’t think I’ve left out many recognized spitz breeds.

How many versions of “hound” do we see just in this small group of breeds? Plenty: Vallhund = hund. Keeshond = hond. If the Norwegians had used the spelling “Elkhund,” that breed would be in the working group right now.

Incidentally, to drag this post back firmly to the world of words, in Norway, this is an elk:

The picture is by Shivam Kumar, from Unsplash, a good place to get free photos, by the way.

So in America the Norwegian Elkhound should really be called the Norwegian Moosehound, but that does sound stupid, so I’m sure it will never catch on. The better option would be to rename the breed the Norwegian Elghund and petition to be moved into the Working Group.

To avoid confusion . . . some kinds of confusion, anyway . . . an alternate common name for American Elk is Wapati. That is a name that steps outside the confusion pretty well.

To ensure understanding, of course, we use Latin names.

The moose is Alces alces. The wapiti is Cervus canadensis. There, problem solved.

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3 thoughts on “The shifting landscape of language”

  1. This is the danger of wiping out elk in your own country. You end up knowing it’s a big deer, and when you see another big deer, you assume it’s right. Then you see another big deer, ask a local what it’s called, and get back “moose.”

  2. I liked the story from my linguistics class about how the word “umpire” used to be “numpire”, but the n jumped from the noun to the article: “a numpire” -> “an umpire”.

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