While examining the conflation of children and animals in the etymology of the word pet for my dissertation, I came across a 1950 article in Language in which one Leo Spitzer argues for a scatological origin of the word, arguing for the Middle French pet, to fart, as a likely origin. The OED asserts the more traditional etymology deriving from Scottish Gaelic, peata, for a tame animal.
I have to admit that when I came across this footnote while proofreading it gave me a laugh. After working on a project for the better part of 5 or 6 years, finding any pleasure, let alone amusement in the thick of things can be a little difficult. And my dissertation tends toward pessimism – what I’m arguing is a little bleak, really. So humor, when it does occur, comes from surprising places. Who knew that the dry-as-dust field of etymology could offer a bit of comic relief in an otherwise heavy chapter? While the etymology isn’t necessarily crucial to my argument, it does make a nice footnote that may let readers join me in a smile.
Interestingly, to me at least, the two origins are not that different in affect. The idea of the child as animal-like, incapable of controlling their bodies or communicating seems to also be implied in the Middle French pet. The early modern Puritan horror of the crawling infant, associated with animality and excrement, venality and the incapacity for speech, seems to lend some credence to a scatological association for pet. The animal association proved more the more persistent, though it remained associated with ill behavior, as in an John MacTaggart’s 1824 Scottish Gallovidian encyclopedia: “A pet is always a dangerous creature; thus a child, petted by its parents, plays the devil some day in the world; a sheep petted, is apt to turn a duncher.” (A duncher is a sheep or goat prone to butting.)
“pet, n2 and adj.” OED Online. March 2009. Oxford University Press. 09 May 2009 <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50176592>.
Leo Spitzer. “On the Etymology of pet.” Language, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Oct. – Dec., 1950) 533-538.