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Bloodhounds and Sheep-biters: Coding Canine Metaphors

Posted by Carole Hough on the 20th of January 2014

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="640"] Image source: Nordisk familjebok (1909), vol.11, Till art. Hunden. III. Author: Heinrich Sperling (1844–1924).
Via: Wikimedia Commons[/caption]

I told my best friend Ben that I was coding Canines, and he gave a woof of approval. Then I said that I hadn’t found a metaphorical link with Intelligence, so he rather lost interest. There are, however, plenty of links with other categories, including Authority (sheep-dog), Dissension/Discord (chiding, snarling), Law (beagle, bull-dog, lurcher, sleuth-hound), Rule/Government (overdog, watch-dog) and Social Class (long-tail, mongrel, yellow dog). A problem is that it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between metaphor and other linguistic processes. To what extent are dogs and humans separate domains, with metaphorical links between them, and to what extent are they both part of a larger domain of living creatures, with overlapping terminology reflecting polysemy or vagueness? The examples above seem to represent metaphorical transfer, but links with categories like Biological Processes (mongrel, whelp) and Speech (barking, give tongue, parlage, yap, yelp) are trickier to classify.

Canines are an interesting category for many reasons, not least in reflecting apparently contradictory associations. There are metaphorical links with both Pride (puppy, whiffed) and Humility (spaniel, poodle), Courage (bull-dog, dog) and Fear (cur, gun-shy). Sadly, the strong links with Contempt (barker, sheep-biter, tripe-hound, whelp) are not matched by equivalent links with Esteem; but even within the single category of Attention/Judgement, separate strands relate to alertness (bloodhound, sleuth-hound), fierceness (bandog, wolfish) and worthlessness (trundle-tail, yellow dog). This rich variety may be partly due to changing attitudes towards dogs through history, which we shall be able to track more easily when the online Metaphor Map (currently under development) makes it possible to focus on individual time-periods.

Another interesting feature is that metaphorical links appear to go in both directions. Most terminology is transferred from canines to humans, but some is transferred from humans to canines. Possibly this may support the polysemy theory: on the other hand, all links in Old English (admittedly very few) are from canines to humans, so perhaps this metaphorical pathway was established early, facilitating subsequent transfer in the other direction.

Although we aren’t coding them, my eye was also caught by some lexical metaphors. The role of analogy can be seen in Equipment for Work, with dog and bitch both used for mining tools. However, my favourite is in Food, where I found a plum pudding named spotted dog. Do stop sulking, Ben!