You ain’t nothin’ but a hound hound?

Dear Word Detective: In Chapter 10 of P. G. Wodehouse’s “The Butler Did It,” he noted that greyhounds are so called because “grey” is an old English word for “badger,” and the these hounds were used in hunting badgers. I have not checked the OED to verify this, but it is different from what I found in one of your columns. Maybe you can prove or disprove his claim? — Anna Tetreau.

Badgers? Badgers? I don’t need to talk about no stinking badgers! Sorry. I’m required by the columnist’s oath to invoke The Treasure of the Sierra Madre whenever badgers are mentioned. It’s a chore in print, but it’s even worse when it happens in a restaurant.

So, Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse differed with my explanation of “greyhound,” did he? That’s a shame, because I’m a big fan of Mr. Wodehouse. It took me a while; for years I scoffed at the idea of reading, as I imagined his work, “books about a rich twit and his butler.” But I finally heeded the advice of a friend (who had also convinced me to start watching The Simpsons) and ended up reading perhaps a third of everything Wodehouse wrote (and he wrote 96 books). His stories are hilarious and truly addictive.

So, to recap my original answer (from around 1996) for the benefit of those readers who missed it: The “grey” [in greyhound] isn’t a color: it’s the remnant of the Old Norse word “grig,” meaning “female dog.” Of course, not all greyhounds are female; otherwise there would be remarkably few greyhounds around to discuss. If the redundancy and illogic of the root meaning “female dog hound” seems odd, it’s just more evidence that the English language evolved, rather than being invented.

Mr. Wodehouse’s theory about “greyhound” being rooted in “grey” as an Old English word for “badger” is, although not correct (there’s pretty conclusive linguistic evidence for the Old Norse source), entirely defensible. “Grey” was indeed used a mean “badger” from the early 15th century onward, based on the color of the animal. In fact, “grey” was specifically used to mean “grey fur,” usually in reference to badger skins, which were a valuable commodity at the time. Add to that the fact that greyhounds were introduced to England as hunting dogs (because of their keen eyesight and speed), and P.G. Wodehouse’s theory seems even more reasonable. In fact (and this is not an uncommon phenomenon), the existence of “grey” meaning “badger” may well have contributed to the persistence of the name “greyhound” in English. So ol’ P.G. was about as right as it is possible to be and still be wrong.

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