On Dog Nomenclature

I am grateful to Wonders And Marvels for drawing to my attention  the important topic of the naming of dogs in Ancient Greece. This is a topic I have always taken very seriously, in spite of the fact that I have never owned a dog myself. Indeed, ever since the age of four, when I was struck dumb and immobile with terror by Mrs Flack’s huge black spittle-flecked growling hound, I have been cautious around dogs.

Mrs Flack was a friend of my mother’s. It is indicative of changing customs, and of a lapse in formalities, that I have no idea of her first name. The friends of my parents were invariably known to me, and I was expected to address them, as Mr or Mrs. As with so much else from my childhood, it seems like a lost world. Much, too, is lost due to my pitiable memory. But I certainly remember Mrs Flack’s dog. We had gone to visit this friend one day, before I was of school age, and while my mother and Mrs Flack chitchatted away in the kitchen, I was deposited in an armchair in the living room, perhaps with a glass of milk and a biscuit and a comic to pass the time. (Another hint of a lost past is that I was not deposited in front of a television set.) At some point, into the room padded a huge black spittle-flecked hound, which planted itself in front of me, growling, quite obviously preparing to pounce and sink its fangs into my little infant throat. I wanted to cry out for help, but was so frightened I could neither move nor make a sound. I was eventually rescued by Mrs Flack popping into the room, seeing my stricken state, and leading the ungodly beast – which had not, after all, attacked me – away, assuring me it was a loveable harmless pooch. In subsequent years I have noticed that dog owners always make such assurances, which I treat with deserved contempt. I remain convinced that the vast majority of dogs mean me harm, and would tear out my vitals given half a chance.

Nevertheless, dog nomenclature has always been a subject of interest to me, as has the nomenclature of other domestic pets. I would not claim is it an intense interest, like, say, the Munich Air Disaster or the Kennedy assassination or the glory of bird life in all its avian forms, but it is something I find diverting. Understand, I don’t spend all my time thinking up names for putative dogs I might own in some parallel universe where I am a keen, even avid, dog lover, and was never traumatised, in my infancy, by Mrs Flack’s huge black spittle-flecked growling hound. To do so would be foolish. But still, every now and then I find myself considering the names of dogs, and so the title of the Wonders and Marvels postage was bound to attract my attention. Names Of Dogs In Ancient Greece, it announced, and I immediately stopped whatever else I was doing so I could bone up on the subject, one which, I admit, I had never given any thought to whatsoever. The Ancient Greece bit, that is.

So what did I learn? Among other things,

An ancient Greek vase painting of 560 BC shows Atalanta and other heroes and their hounds killing the great Calydonian Boar. Seven dogs’ names are inscribed on the vase: . . . Hormenos (Impulse), Methepon (Pursuer), Egertes (Vigilant), Korax (Raven), Marpsas, Labros (Fierce), and Eubolous (Shooter).

I have to say I am a little peeved that we are not told the meaning of Marpsas. Perhaps it doesn’t mean anything, is just a word or sound that sprang into the head of an Ancient Greek person when confronted with a new as yet nameless puppy. But it would be helpful to be told, otherwise I might lie awake all night wondering about it.

The Roman poet Ovid gives the Greek names of the 36 dogs that belonged to Actaeon, the unlucky hunter of Greek myth who was torn apart by his pack: among them were Tigris, Laelaps (Storm), Aello (Whirlwind), and Arcas (Bear). Pollux lists 15 dog names; another list is found in Columella. The longest list of suitable names for ancient Greek dogs – 46 in all – was compiled by the dog whisperer Xenophon. Popular names for dogs in antiquity, translated from Greek, include Lurcher, Whitey, Blackie, Tawny, Blue, Blossom, Keeper, Fencer, Butcher, Spoiler, Hasty, Hurry, Stubborn, Yelp, Tracker, Dash, Happy, Jolly, Trooper, Rockdove, Growler, Fury, Riot, Lance, Pell-Mell, Plucky, Killer, Crafty, Swift, and Dagger.

Again, it might have been helpful to give full rather than partial lists. Telling us the numbers but then giving only a few samples is the kind of thing that can get me steamed up, if I am already in a bad mood. Luckily, I was not in a bad mood today, quite the opposite, for I am always pleased by rainfall, especially in summer. In yesterday’s Grauniad there was a quotation from Kenneth Williams’ diaries, in which he wrote “This was one of those dark, rainy mornings that I love”. I would echo that.

Still, even though I would have preferred to be given fuller and further information, I was pleased to discover what I did about the dog names of Ancient Greece, and you will be too, if you go and read the full article. Meanwhile, it occurred to me that, just as I never learned Mrs Flack’s first name, nor did I ever find out the name of the great slavering brute that terrorised me. Perhaps if I could give it a name, even now, so many years later, I might be able to overcome my fear of pooches. I note that Growler is given in one of the lists above, which is perfectly appropriate, but I think I am going to retrospectively dub Mrs Flack’s dog Rockdove. That sounds a bit weedy, for a hound. Even a terrified four-year-old could cope with a dog called Rockdove, even if it was huge and black and spittle-flecked and growling.

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