Insults are at least as old as spoken words, perhaps older. There are many English terms for that kind of insult: swear-words, foul-mouthing, abuse (verbal), name-calling … you may lengthen the list ad nauseum without any help. Name-calling by dragging in relatively blameless animals is a very old form of insult (swine, ass, dunce, sonofabitch, śuorer bāchchā), second only to those related to bodily acts and consequences thereof (mother-******, sister-******, śālā — Bengali (and Hindustani starting with dental ‘s’) for one’s wife’s brother in the sense of I-sleep-with-your-sister, bastard*, dhyāmnā —) and definitely older than the god-derivations (godforsaken, śālā — derived this time from insh’allah).
I had been privately studying, tongue-in-cheek lest you take me too seriously, the swearing customs in Indo-European, trying to trace the animal name roots. It serves no purpose but to satisfy my curiosity. And it deserves some serious appreciation for the scholarly content of the effort.
I thought it worthwhile sharing a few of the commonest ones on the web, though there must be far more learned masters on the subject. Some of the the insults, commonplace though they are, might pleasantly surprise the uninitiated.
The quotes under canis are from Wikipedia; the other quotes are all from the online etymological dictionary http://www.etymonline.com.
I cordially invite all visitors to feel free to comment on and add to my compendium. Please help me to develop it with your learned comments and contributions– backed by valid citations, of course.
[*Though unrelated, I can’t resist the temptation of mentioning a boyhood experience of mine. In the Chinsurah school that was my alma mater, we had several boys coming from Chandernagore, an erstwhile French town. One of them, Ashok, had an excellent vocabulary of swear-words. I’d often heard him say, “betār, bejammā” in the same breath but never understood what the ‘wireless’ had to do with ‘bastards’! Years later somebody pointed out that the French word for the English equivalent was so pronounced].
swine: O.E. swin “pig, hog,” from P.Gmc. *swinan (cf. O.S., O.Fris. M.L.G., O.H.G. swin, M.Du. swijn, Du. zwijn, Ger. Schwein), neut. adj. (with suffix *-ino-) from PIE *su- (see sow(n.)). The native word, largely ousted by pig. Applied to persons from late 14c. Phrase pearls before swine is from Matt. vii.6; an early English formation of it was: Ne ge ne wurpen eowre meregrotu toforan eo wrum swynon. [c.1000]
The Latin word was confused in French with marguerite “daisy” (the “pearl” of the field), and in Dutch the expression became “roses before swine.”
PIE (proto-Indo-European) is a theoretical reconstruct. Sanskrit for swine is śukar, hence Bengali śuor. So, Bengali śuorer bāchchā is a calque of English “bloody swine”.
boar: O.E. bar “boar,” from W.Gmc. *bairaz (cf. O.S. ber, Du. beer, O.H.G. ber), of unknown origin with no cognates outside W.Gmc. Applied in M.E. to persons of boar-like character. They missed out the Sanskrit word varāha and its derivative varāha-nandana!
There are several species of this genus. See what the Wikipedia has to say.
Wolves, dogs, and dingos
Wolves, dogs and dingos are subspecies of Canis lupus. The original referent of the English word wolf, the Eurasian Grey Wolf, is called Canis lupus lupusto distinguish it from other wolf subspecies, such as the Iranian Wolf (Canis lupus pallipes), the Arabian Wolf (Canis lupus arabs), or the Tibetan Wolf (Canis lupus chanco), which are probably more similar to the variety of wolf that was ancestral to the modern dog (Canis lupus familiaris).
Some experts have suggested that some subspecies of C. lupus be considered Canis species distinct from Canis lupus. These include Central Asia’s Himalayan wolf, and the Indian Wolf, as well as the North American’s Red wolf and Eastern Wolf. The dingo (C. lupus dingo), from Australia, and the domestic dog (C. lupus familiaris) are also considered subspecies of Canis lupus, although they themselves are not commonly referred to or thought of as “wolves”.
Coyotes, Jackals, and “wolves”
C. lupus is but one of many Canis species called “wolves”, most of which are now extinct and little known to the general public. One of these, however, thedire wolf, has gained fame for the thousands of specimens found and displayed at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California.
The dire wolf is an example of the word “wolf” being applied loosely, i.e.: to a canid which is not Canis lupus. Other examples include Canis simensis, which has undergone many popular name changes, as its intermediate morphology had caused some to think of it as a jackal or a fox; but current taxonomic and genetic consensus is reflected in its “official name,” the Ethiopian Wolf.
Canis species too small to attract the word “wolf” are called “coyotes” in the Americas and jackals elsewhere. Although these may not be more closely related to each other than they are to C. lupus, they are, as fellow Canis species, all more closely related to wolves and domestic dogs than they are tofoxes, maned wolves, or other canids which do not belong to the canis genus. The word “jackal” is applied to three distinct species of this group: Africa’s side-striped (C. adustus) and black-backed jackals (C. mesomelas); and the golden jackal (C. aureus), which can be found across northern Africa, southwestern and south central Asia, and the Balkans.
While North America has only one small-sized species, the coyote (C. latrans), it has become very widespread indeed, moving into areas once occupied by wolves. They can be found across much of mainland Canada, in every state of the continental United States, all of Mexico except the Yucatán peninsula, and Pacific and central areas of Central America, ranging as far south as northern Panama.
It is rather unfortunate that, with the exception of bitches, no other species of this genus have been chosen for swearing, unless, of course, you consider ‘sly as a fox’ to be a swear-word. The word ‘dog’ is not of IE origin, and ‘canis’, alas, is not an English word, but ‘canine’ is. Let us look up that in etymonline.
“pointed tooth,” late 14c., from L. caninus “of the dog,” gen. of canis “dog,” from PIE base *kwon- “dog” (cf. Gk. kyon, O.E. hund, O.H.G. hunt, O.Ir. cu, Welsh ci, Skt. svan-, Avestan spa, Rus. sobaka (apparently from an Iranian source), Armenian shun, Lith. suo). The adjective is attested from c.1600. The noun meaning “dog” is first recorded 1869.
Some IE languages write ‘hundred’ as śatam and others as centum (pronounced ken-toom). That’s how the Greek cognate kyon begins with ‘k’ in place of Sanskrit ‘ś’. Notwithstanding Etymonline, the PIE base, if there ever was any, must actually have been śwon (not kwon); such errors in reconstruction can be forgiven for all such endeavours are speculative, at best.
The word kukkur, though beginning with ‘k’, is non-PIE. It is of Austro-Asiatic (ādivāsi) derivation, probably from the common alliterative dog-call (ah ah) tu tu, or chu chu, or its Santhali variant khu khu, conveniently Sanskritised to kukkur at a later date. Such Sanskritisations are far too many and often very difficult to identify. When Mahāvīra came to Bengal to preach his Jaina doctrine some two and a half millennia ago, the locals, Austro-Asiatic aborigines all, had set their pack of dogs at him, saying chhu chhu. We in Bengal still call it kukur; the dropping of the middle ‘k’ from the ‘pair’ is relatively recent. The sad thing is that there is no chālu Indian equivalent of ‘sonofabitch’; it may be noted with dismay that the said Americanism too carefully avoids referring to the male of the species because it happens to be man’s best friend’.
Apparently, none of the languages–IE or Austric–remember that dogs were not a natural (or even a separate) species; they were wolves–ever so hungry and ferocious during the last ice age–that used to follow human camps for the nightly warmth of fire and a few tasty pieces of bone. That shows that the domestication of wolves had taken place far back in time.
Horses, as we know them, were domesticated in the freezing grasslands of Central Asia by some IE-speaking tribes. The IE-speakers then dispersed, along with their horses, to South Asia, a substantial region in West Asia, parts of North Africa and all of Europe. The early IE people were largely hunter-gatherers, animal herders and cross-breeders (cattle, sheep, horses, specialist dogs). Some tribes had a rudimentary form of agriculture (rake-sow-reap-burn and move on for greener pastures). And they had a beautifully structured language, capable of usurping words and expressions of other languages with great elan, and very handy for abstract thoughts as well. Remember, Rgveda was composed well before writing was invented in the region. They also had light chariots, ideal for long-distance travels and serious warfare. Those were much faster than the Egyptian ass-drawn engines-of-war. They could pass on specialised knowledge down through generations without distortion of the senses. The Vedas were so preserved for eons before they were finally written down. The linguistic superiority, eventually, made them so dominant.
horse (n.): O.E. hors, from P.Gmc. *hursa- (cf. O.N. hross, O.Fris. hors, M.Du. ors, Du. ros, O.H.G. hros, Ger. Roß “horse”), of unknown origin, connected by some with PIE base *kurs-, source of L. currere “to run” (see current). The usual IE word is represented by O.E. eoh, from PIE *ekwo- “horse” (see equine). In many other languages, as in English, this root has been lost in favor of synonyms, probably via superstitious taboo on uttering the name of an animal so important in I.E. religion.
ass (1): beast of burden, O.E. assa (Old Northumbrian assal, assald) “he-ass,” probably from O.Celt. *as(s)in “donkey,” which (with Ger. esel, Goth. asilus, Lith. asilas, O.C.S. osl) is ultimately from L. asinus, probably of Middle Eastern origin (cf. Sumerian ansu). Since ancient Greek times, in fables and parables, the animal typified clumsiness and stupidity (hence asshead, late 15c., etc.). To make an ass of oneself is from 1580s. Asses’ Bridge (c.1780), from L. Pons Asinorum, is fifth proposition of first book of Euclid’s “Elements.”
For al schal deie and al schal passe, Als wel a Leoun as an asse. [John Gower, “Confessio Amantis,” 1393]
In M.E., someone uncomprehending or unappreciative would be lik an asse that listeth on a harpe. In 15c., an ass man was a donkey driver.
ass (2): slang for “backside,” first attested 1860 in nautical slang, in popular use from 1930; chiefly U.S.; from dialectal variant pronunciation of arse (q.v.). The loss of -r- before -s-attested in several other words (e.g. burst/bust, curse/cuss, horse/hoss, barse/bass). Indirect evidence of the change from arse to ass can be traced to 1785 (in euphemistic avoidance of ass “donkey” by polite speakers) and perhaps to Shakespeare, if Nick Bottom transformed into a donkey in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1594) is the word-play some think it is. Meaning “woman regarded as a sexual object” is from 1942. Colloquial (one’s) ass “one’s self, one’s person” attested by 1958.
[Insertion of ass (2) in the list is an intentional error. It belongs, admittedly, more under ‘human anatomy’ than ‘zoology’. It, however, finds many swear-word applications, as if, it is an animal by itself. Perhaps it is].
Horses, asses and zebras are close DNA-cousins. That’s why, perhaps, the first two are aśva in Sanskrit. The third was a species unknown to early IE speakers and hence has no place in the IE lexicons. Please note that if śva (dog) is an animal with sharp canines, aśva is a species without. Also please refer to the Aśvinīkumāra twins, the physicians of the Vedic pantheon. Sons (kumāra) of a mare (aśvinī). Were they horse-doctors too?