The origin of dog
Translated by Olivier van Renswoude from his original Dutch piece on July 23, 2015.
The origin of the English word dog has been a riddle for ages. It developed through Middle English dogge from Old English docga, after which the trail seems to go cold. At first it referred mostly to dogs of a coarser nature and was often used disparagingly, also as an insult to people. Eventually it pushed past hound, which in the sister languages –like Icelandic hundur, Norwegian hund, German Hund and Dutch hond– is still the general word for man’s best friend, and spread to other languages. Where did this English word come from? A possible answer lies in the comparison with some Dutch words.
The Polish etymologist Piotr Gąsiorowski put forth a new proposal just a few years ago, by interpreting Old English docga as a pet form of dox/dohx ‘of a certain dark hue’ (cf. English dusk), like frocga/frogga ‘frog’ beside frox/frosc/forsc ‘id.’. That is to say, the name would originally have referred to a darker type of dog. That is possible, but not very compelling, more so as the Dutch etymologist Guus Kroonen made it plausible that frox and such were derived from frocga and such rather than the other way around.
More interesting then is the occurrence of Dutch dog, dogge ‘codfish’ (also a certain type of net with which to catch it). From this was derived –albeit attested earlier– Middle Dutch dogger ‘one who fishes with a drag net, who catches certain seafish; fishing boat; flounder boat; herring boat’. What could codfish and such have in common with dogs? But there is more, namely Dutch Low German dogge ‘dope, crude, not too clever person or animal’ and Old Norse dugga (f.) ‘coward, worthless fellow’. The Dutch etymologist A.A. Weijnen thought it possible that these two were cognate with English dog, but offered no further etymology. Now, it is possible that all these words go back to a single ancestral word, in the form of Old Germanic *duggō. What might we then connect it to and what would it mean?
To answer that question we have to take a look at a certain type of verb which was very common to Old Germanic. Its original conjugation was marked by a peculiar difference in the consonants at the end of the root: a short soft one in the plural, opposite a long sharp one in the singular. Speakers had the inclination to level that difference, but not all in the same direction, so that out of that single original verb several different verbs usually developed in the daughter languages. Five examples:
*tukkōþi ‘he/she/it pulls, jerks, *tugunanþi ‘they pull, jerk’
|Middle Dutch tocken, Old High German zockōn
Middle Dutch token, Old High German zohhōn
Middle English toggen, English tug
Old English togian, Old Norse toga, Middle Dutch togen, Old High German zogōn
*bukkōþi ‘he/she/it bows’, *bugunanþi ‘they bow’
|Old Frisian bukkia, Middle Dutch bocken, Dutch bukken, Norwegian bukka
*skukkōþi ‘he/she/it shakes, *skugunanþi ‘they shake’
|Middle Dutch schocken, Middle High German schocken, Early English shock
Middle English shoggen, English shog
*rukkōþi ‘he/she/it moves to and fro’, *rugunanþi ‘they move to and fro’
|Old English roccian, English rock, Frisian rokke, rukke, Icelandic rokka
Old Norse rugga, Icelandic rugga, rogga
*dukkōþi ‘he/she/it goes under, *dugunanþi ‘they go under’
|Middle Dutch ducken ‘to dive, duck’, Early Dutch docken ‘to dive’
Early Dutch doken ‘to hide’
Well then, with this last verb it is plausible that the form *duggōnan, though not attested in the daughter languages, existed and that from this our *duggō was derived. The word then meant as much as ‘stumbler’ and ‘low someone or something’ and could henceforth be used to refer to coarse dogs (English dog), dopey people and animals (Dutch Low German dogge), worthless fellows (Old Norse dugga) and also to bottom dwelling fish like codfish (Dutch dogge).
Closely related are *dūkanan ‘to go under’ (English duck, Dutch duiken ‘to dive’ etc.), *daugjanan ‘to undergo’ (Old English gedíegan ‘to suffer, endure’, Dutch gedogen ‘to tolerate’ etc.) and *daugalaz ‘hidden underground, underwater, in the deep’ (Old English déagol, Old Saxon dôgal ‘hidden, secret’ etc.).