Hound

Or you could offer to explain “going postal” to them.

Dear Word Detective: It so happened that I recently begged some people at work who had a habit of pestering me to “quit hounding me.” They were quite confused to hear the term used in that sense, and I have to admit it always struck me as bizarre that “hound” could not only refer to man’s best friend, but also to pestering the sin out of someone. Traditional dictionaries shed little light on the origins of this usage, and sadly I could find no answers in your archive. So how did we start to use “hound” in the sense of annoying someone? — Jon Book.

How odd. Presuming that your office is in an English-speaking country, I can understand blank looks from your co-workers at phrases such as “count the cats in Zanzibar” or “not worth the candle” (both explained in our archives at www.word-detective.com, of course). But “hound” as a verb? Then again, I doubt that “hound” crops up very often on American Idiot, er, Idol. OK, geezer mode off.

hound08.pngA “hound,” of course, is a type of dog, and English is awash in idioms and metaphors employing man’s best friend, not all of which cast dogs in a good light. We speak of things “going to the dogs” as they degenerate, “a dog’s life” is one of toil and hunger, and the “dogs of war” plague our planet.

Although today we most often use “hound” to mean one of the hunting or tracking breeds of dog, when “hund” first appeared in Old English from a Germanic root, it meant simply “dog.” It was only in the late 12th century that “hound” came to be narrowed to mean the foxhounds, bloodhounds, greyhounds, etc., used as hunting companions. As a noun, “hound” has collected a number of figurative uses over the years, from meaning a man of low repute (equivalent to “dog” in “dirty dog”) to denoting a person committed, like a hound following a trail, to a particular interest or pursuit, e.g., “newshound.”

This application of “hound” to human behavior led to the development of “to hound” as a verb. When it first appeared in the early 16th century, “to hound” meant simply to track or pursue something (or someone) with hounds. By the 17th century, however, “to hound” described a human acting like a hound relentlessly pursuing its prey (“The watchword would have been given to hound the fugitives from place to place,” 1897). Soon after, “to hound” came to mean to harass or pester another person (“If I attempt to fight them I shall be hounded out of public life,” G.B. Shaw, 1930). This is the modern usage that puzzled your co-workers. Incidentally, if you really want them to leave you alone, hit ‘em with the Zanzibar cats.

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