July 02, 2007

You better not call me a puppy

Part of the daily grind of your hard-working staff here at Language Log Plaza is to keep readers abreast of all kinds of language use, including the nasty, insulting expressions that we see and hear around us every day, like the flap in Northern Ireland about words like shite and gobshite, the analysis of the nappy headed ho controversy, or which presidential candidate Ann Coulter has (or hasn't) called a faggot lately. We locate them all for our readers.

Insults have been around for a long time but, like every other aspect of language, they have a way of changing dramatically. And so do their consequences. Today we can be thankful that we have defamation law to remedy such things, but it wasn't always that way. It's easy to forget that only a couple centuries ago, insulting someone often led directly to bloody duels. Folks felt pretty strongly about  a code of honor back then -- personal honor, at least. [note to self: maybe it would be good to have some kind of code of honor today]

I've been reading up on dueling lately for various reasons, none of which, I assure you, have anything whatsoever to do with the fact that I still haven't received my key to the executive wash room that was promised me when I was hired on here. Let's just say that I've been reading up on the topic of dueling. In her book, Affairs of Honor (Yale University Press, 2002, xvi), Joanne B. Freeman reports:

A man of honor deserved respect, so signs of disrespect  were dangerous. Certain slurs were off limits, tame as they are by modern standards.  Rascal, scoundrel, liar, coward and puppy: these were fighting words, and anyone who  hurled them  at an opponent was  risking his life.

I can understand why someone would be offended by being called a rascal, scoundrel, liar, or coward, but puppy puzzles me. Why would that be so insulting as to cause a duel? Aren't puppies cute little bundles of joy? Isn't puppy love sort of nice? Maybe, I thought, it's because puppies aren't housebroken. But enough of the speculation -- off to the book shelf.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists an alternative British meaning: "an unpleasant or arrogant young man," and a similar sense  appears in the American Heritage Dictionary without any reference to British usage: "a conceited  or inexperienced youth." Okay, maybe these are slurs but I still wonder why the word would lead to bloodshed. Unless there is a meaning of puppy that has changed drastically since about 1800 (tell me if you know), all I can think is that people had some pretty thin skin back then.

[Update] We have great readers, and the following from Thor Lawrence is proof. He sent me the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, subtitle A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence, unabridged from the original 1811 edition, compiled by Captain Grose, assisted by Hell-Fire Dick and James Gordon, Esqrs. of Cambridge and William Soames, Esq. of the Hon. Society of Newman's Hotel.

The preface explains that before a member of the Whip Club altered and enlarged Captain Grose's dictionary, its "circulation was confined almost exclusively to the lower orders of society: he was not aware, at the time of its compilation, that our young men of fashion would at no very distant period be as distinguished for the vulgarity of their jargon as the inhabitants of Newgate."

And yes, it has a brief entry for puppy:

PUPPY: An affected or conceited coxcomb.

I hope this clears things up.

Posted by Roger Shuy at July 2, 2007 12:25 PM