The Portable Pup.

Dear Word Detective:  My sister recently started taking care of one of those seeing-eye-dog-in-training puppies (a lovely fellow, part yellow lab, part golden retriever, and part crocodile, and judging by how much he likes eating paper, possibly with some goat thrown in the mix too), and as is often the case with pets he has gained a long list of nicknames. One of those nicknames is the fairly predictable “pooch,” which is a fun word, but sounds really strange when you think about it, and this got us wondering about its etymology. The Oxford dictionary only had the frustrating “origin unknown” tag (or to be precise, “1920s: of unknown origin”), as well as the 17th century US informal verb “pooch,” meaning “protrude or cause to protrude,” which I assume is unrelated. Other sources had no answer, either. So we tried your website, and were surprised to find that there is no mention of “pooch” even here, although I seem to remember there are a number of pooches in your house, and those do get mentioned now and then. So, can you shed any light on the first appearance of this nickname, and maybe its origin? — Yael.

Yes, it’s true that we have two dogs, Brownie and Pokie, also known as Doorbell and Barkie. But though they are dandy dogs, neither of them has ever been remotely as useful as your sister’s puppy will be someday. As I’ve mentioned before, the only chore they’re willing to tackle is washing the dishes, and the plates smell funny when they’re done.

I don’t usually begin by admitting defeat, but I might as well let the cat out of the bag right now. No one knows with certainty the origin as “pooch” as a slang term for a dog. But hey, nobody knows a lot of things, including the whereabouts of Amelia Earhart, the precise shoe size of Bigfoot, and exactly what the iPad is actually good for. Fortunately, if you poke around long enough in dusty books and the virtually dusty precincts of the internet, you encounter a number of theories about the origin of “pooch.” Most of them fall somewhere on the spectrum between unlikely and impossible, but I found one discussion from a few years ago on the email discussion list of the American Dialect Society (ADS-L) that pointed to a plausible explanation of “pooch.”

What we know for sure about “pooch” meaning “dog” is that it first appeared in print in the US in the early years of the 20th century (“He used to take the pig out with him when he had finished his act and had him harnessed up like a trick pooch with a collar, shoulder straps and a leading string,” 1913). “Pooch” as a verb meaning “to bulge or swell” (originally “to purse one’s lips”) is older, dating back to the 1700s, and probably originated as a variation of “pouch.” The two “pooches” are presumed to be unrelated.

The discussion I found on ADS-L from 2003, however, plausibly suggests that the two are very much related. One ADS member, Douglas Wilson, pointed out that “pouch” was a standard word for “pocket” in Scots in the 19th century. Furthermore, “pooch,” to the extent that it isn’t merely a generic term for any dog, generally means “small dog” or “worthless dog” (i.e., not a “working” dog such as a hunting or herding dog). Wilson suggests, quite plausibly, that “pooch dog” might have been a simple variant of the term “pocket dog” applied to small breeds today, what would also be called a “lapdog.” A quick search of Google today produced about 224,000 hits for “pocket dog,” so the term is indeed very much in current use.This “pouch/pooch” connection is still just a theory, of course, but the fact that “pouch” did mean “pocket” in Scots and that “pocket dog” means an especially portable pooch seems pretty compelling to me.

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