What could be more adorable than floppy ears, a silky coat, big soulful eyes, and a cold, wet nose? Yet the name of this lovable specimen literally means a surly cur – mean, submissive, subservient, and definitely not to be trusted.
No, it’s not an Angolan definition of Pik Botha (his ears aren’t floppy enough), the dog in question is none other than everyone’s favourite four-legged friend – the spaniel. The extent of the hound’s rehabilitation from object of scorn to chocolate box lid, shows how history moulds the English language.
The spaniel was originally “espagnol” – the Spanish one. And as England was perpetually at war with Spain, the attitude of the Spaniards tended to be a bit short of complimentary. For many, the war still continues, even if it is confined to package tour Poms and Marbella winebars rather than Sir Francis Drake and Spanish galleons in the English Channel.
All wars have their innocent victims, and in this case the poor spaniel took the knock. Being “espagnol” he was held to have the same unsavoury characteristics as his countrymen.
Nowadays, poodle seems to have taken over from spaniel as the favourite term of disparagement for those who show little independence of will and are ever-ready to do the bidding of others. The name is of German ancestry - not French – and although the English were at war with the Germans and the French as often as they were with the Spanish, the poodle’s slide from linguistic grace does not seem to be a by-product of the conflict.
He was originally a “pudelhond”, simply and literally a puddle hound. Most poodles of my acquaintance would give puddles a very wide berth, preferring to stay warm and dry in the pampered comfort of a quilted basket.
The poodle now seems to have degenerated from a useful working water dog to an idle layabout, more prized for purposes ornmental than practical. “A fat asthmatic poodle lay at her feet on the hearthrug”, is a typical OED reference dating from 1886.
While the poodle has obviously been a successful SUMP (socially upwardly mobile pooch), the spaniel has had the better PR campaign.
Compare the spaniel’s current image and this quote from a 16th century moralist: “Beware of that sly sycophant’s dog-tricks, who like a spaniel flatters, fawns, and licks.”
The negatives attached to the spaniel’s Spanish ancestry are now all but forgotten, and his affectionate good nature has won him a place in the hearts of a nation