Shock! Horror! It’s a shaggy dog story.

Shock! Horror! It’s a shaggy dog story.

The September OED release includes revised entries for SHOCK and related words.

An intriguing group of words for dogs, dating back to the early modern period, is included in this set. Tracing their pedigree has involved some interesting detective work on the part of the OED’s lexicographers.

SHOCK-DOG n.: the nature of the beast.

A shock dog appears to have been a popular kind of pet among the fashionable classes in Renaissance England—the 17th century’s answer to the Cockapoo. The word was formerly defined by way of a cross-reference to SHOCK (which seems to denote to the same kind of animal, “a dog having long shaggy hair, spec. a poodle”), and illustrated by quotation evidence dating back to 1673, when Carolina, a “lady of wit, beauty, and Fortune” in Thomas Shadwell’s comedy Epsom-Wells, condemns the men who pursue her for marriage as “Fools, who have no more sense than our Shock-dogs”.

Much of the research and revision work conducted on this entry over the last few months has aimed to provide a more helpful definition and a more accurate date of first use for this noun. The revised entry now shows that it used in English some two decades before Shadwell’s Carolina made her complaint. In October 1652 the radical newspaper Faithful Scout reported on the raising of a standard by the Lords of Zealand in honour of the young Prince William III of Orange (then a small child), on whom they had just bestowed several deeply age-inappropriate military posts:

They have erected and set up the Princes Standard, wherein he is magnificently set forth with a Commanders staff in his right hand, a shock dog kissing his left, and adorn’d with a Crown lying on a Table; by which they infer, that the Lyon of the United Provinces shall be brought to kiss his hand, and fawn upon him like a little shock.

This extract gives useful confirmation that the words shock and shock-dog were indeed synonymous at this date, as well as providing some clues about the appearance of the dog to inform definitions: it is small, tame, and (perhaps) resembles a lion. Several other passages now cited in the revised entry for shock-dog refer not only to the dog’s diminutive size but also to its long coat. In 1792 the animal is described as “about the size of a squirrel, having very long soft silky hair all over the body”, and Horace Walpole, commenting in 1782 on his cousin Anne Damer’s terracotta sculpture Shock Dog, remarks on the “looseness and softness in the curls”.

This sculpture itself, pictured above, gives us vital information on the appearance of the dog known by this name in the 18th century—looking at this image, it is easy to imagine that the long hair around the dog’s face may have suggested a lion’s mane to the designer of Prince William’s standard in the 1650s. In fact, the dog Damer depicted in her sculpture very much resembles the modern-day Maltese, a connection supported by quot. 1792, which identifies the shock dog with the breed Linnaeus called Canis melitaeus (literally, Maltese dog). An alternative name for this modern breed is the Maltese Lion Dog.

The updated quotation evidence for shock dog has allowed us to improve on the definition (“A small dog having a shaggy coat”), and to add a note on the occasional identification with the Maltese dog, as well as providing new insight into the date at which this word was current in English.

SHOCK n. and some etymological detangling.

SHOCK-DOG n. appears to be a compound with SHOCK n. as its first element. The simplex word is first recorded in 1638, which makes this etymology entirely plausible. Again, a long, shaggy coat is frequently alluded to in passages that discuss the shock (1660, 1719, and 1800). Moreover, several quotations now included in the revised entry also refer to Malta (1660, 1800, 1911), which has prompted the addition of a similar note in our revised entry that the word is sometimes used of the Maltese. Despite extensive research however, no documentary evidence has been found to support the assertion formerly made in the definition that SHOCK was used specifically of the poodle (modern breeds of which do not have long or silky coats), so this has been omitted from the revised text.

As well as semantic evidence, several newly-added illustrative examples at SHOCK n. have provided useful cues for etymological investigation. For instance, quot. 1660 states specifically that it was the shock’s long hair that gave rise to its name. Several homonyms of the word do indeed refer to long, shaggy hair, although all are currently first attested later than this dog name and therefore present chronological problems as potential etymons. Most notable of these homonyms is SHOCK adj., which is now known to be applied to animals as well as humans from 1675—the new earliest example describes the exotic-sounding “white Shock-Rabbit of Turkie..having long and fine hair”. The etymology section of the revised entry now records this possibility and acknowledges its limitations.

Although several quotations in the revised entry for SHOCK n. suggest the same connection with Malta seen at SHOCK DOG (1660, 1800, 1911), the earliest seems to involve quite a different part of the world: Iceland.

T’is meeter (I thinke) such ugly baggages
Should in a Kitchin drudge for yearly wages,
Than gentle Shee who hath been bred to stand
Neere chaire of Queene with Island shock in hand.

Again, the context suggests a small toy dog or lapdog appropriate for a gentlewoman or lady in waiting to carry at court, but the connection between dogs of this kind and Iceland is unclear. (The only modern breed of dog known to be native to that country is the Icelandic Sheepdog, a working dog of the spitz type far too large and lively to be held in anyone’s hand—the average adult male of the modern breed weighs in at a hefty 30 pounds.)

Icelandic relations? SHOUGH n., SHOLT n., and beyond.

The Icelandic link suggested in early documentation for SHOCK has prompted us to pursue possible etymological relationships with two other words for dogs associated with that country: SHOUGH and SHOLT. Another canine of a small and shaggy persuasion, the SHOUGH may have resembled a Skye terrier: the dog is described variously as “curled and rough” and “woolly”, and its import from Iceland is mentioned by Thomas Nashe as early as 1599. Subsequent examples illustrate the popularity of this kind of dog as a pet in Renaissance England, notorious for its curious habit of eating candles (quot. 1996).

Further back in 1587, the dog known as a SHOLT seems also to have been an Icelandic import. Now obsolete, this word seems to have been used primarily when referring to less refined creatures than the shock or shock dog, of a low-bred dog or cur: the 1587 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicle states that these dogs are “dailie brought out of Iseland”. The etymology of SHOUGH is unclear: given the relative closeness in sense and form, it is tempting to see it as a variant or alteration of SHOLT, and connection with either SHAG or the corresponding adjective is also possible, although neither of these suggestions would be phonologically straightforward. Given that the two words appear to have identical pronunciations in modern use, however, it is feasible that SHOUGH may be the etymon of SHOCK, and our revised entry for the latter word also explores this possibility.

All the dog-words discussed here have now been fully revised in this OED update, and it has been gratifying to explore the meaning and origins of each, as well as the etymological relationships that may exist between them. Unlike most shaggy dog stories, we hope that this one is not “more amusing to the teller than to his audience, or amusing only by its pointlessness”.

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