Mary Jean Mueckenheim of Windsor, Vt., asks: What’s the origin of the word mutt? Our recent “Double Dog Dare” quiz about mixed-breed dogs has her thinking about that term. She wonders, “Did the word mutt come from the word muddle?”

It’s a good guess, but the answer’s more complicated. Mutt comes from an older term, muttonhead, which alludes to the proverbial stupidity of sheep. In the early 1800’s, muttonhead meant “a dull or stupid person.”

Over time, English speakers shortened this contemptuous term to mutt, and used it in several negative ways. Today, mutt can denote a stupid person or an inferior racehorse. Most often, though, it refers to a dog with a mixed pedigree.

Mutts don’t fare much better in other languages. In Greece, the term for this kind of canine derives from a word for “dung” and can apply to, among other things, either a “mongrel dog” or “a despicable person.” In Brazil, a mixed-breed dog is a vira-lata — literally, “it turns the can,” a reference to the image of a scrawny pup scrounging for food among garbage bins.

We here at A Way with Words have always had a soft spot for dogs of the “Heinz 57” variety. If you share our affection for them, you might enjoy The Underdog: A Celebration of Mutts by mutt maven Julia Szabo. This appreciation of all things mutt-related includes a longer essay by Martha on terms for mixed-breed dogs in various languages.

Photo by Sini Merikallio. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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