pet /’pɛt/

One of the problems with Social Networks is that they can take up so much time that you can end up being antisocial in the real world. By the time you’ve caught up on your blogs, Facebook, MySpace, twitters, plurks, and IMs, it’s time for a cup of hot cocoa and a trip to the land of Nod.

So the real trick is to limit your sociability and learn how to restrict your virtual life to something that’s manageable. Hence, I have the Word Guy blog (thanks for reading), the Word Guy tweets (thanks for following), and the Word Guy Facebook page (click on the link to sign up.)

But when it’s not all about me, I like to chat with the folks of “If You Can’t Differentiate Between “Your” and “You’re” You Deserve To Die,” a Facebook group for the linguistically pedantic – and that’s not a bad thing. During one of the recent discussions about the irritating phrase “a high rate of speed,” the phrases “pet peeve” and “pet hate” popped up, which got me to thinking about the origins of the word pet.

Bizarrely enough, the first recorded instance of pet comes from 1521 (or thereabouts) where it is used to mean the act of breaking wind – or farting, for the less euphemistically inclined. Scottish writer and poet, Andrew Barclay (1476-1152) wrote The boke of Codrus and Mynalcas in 1521, and in it included the phrase, “…Though all their connynge scantly be worthe a pet.” This use is rare and its flatulent sense comes from Old French pet, which in turn is derived from Latin pedere, which means “to break wind.”

This is the same root for Le Petomane, the stage name for one Joseph Pujol (1857-1945), who made a living as a professional farter (or flatulist). His skill was to be able to produce and control farts at will, and then to be able to get people to pay to heat this! Petomane itself came from the Modern French peter, to break wind, and mane, meaning manic. Thus, he was a manic farter – or, as others have described it, a fartoholic.

Le Petomane

But this is a diversion: The meaning of pet that we are interested in does not, sadly, come to us via this route. Instead, it is from the Scottish Gaelic peata, which meant “tame animal.” In Robert Pitcairn’s Ancient criminal trials in Scotland (1488–1624) we find the 1539 comment “…deliverit to Thomas Melvillis wiffe, in Falkland for keeping of certane pettis and nurising of the samyn.”

By the end of the 17th century and beginning of the 18th, the word had come to be used more specifically to refer to a young lamb. In 1755, Samuel Johnson’s entry for pet in his Dictionary of the English Language was, “A lamb taken into the house, and brought up by hand. A cade lamb.”

The meaning then extended to refer to any animal kept in a house for pleasure or companionship. Mark Twain uses the word in his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884); “A prisoner’s got to have some kind of a dumb pet, and if a rattlesnake hain’t ever been tried, why, there’s more glory to be gained in your being the first to ever try it.”

In Scotland, the word pet was also to describe a spoiled child or a favorite. Scottish author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used it in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes in 1894; “Dark or fair, she is my own dear little girlie, and her mother’s pet.”

The word took on a more affectionate spin as a term of endearment for someone sweet, obliging, or obedient. By the 20th century, this was a common meaning. For example, P.G. Wodehouse wrote “Do be a pet and go and talk to Jane Hubbard. I’m sure she must be feeling lonely.” (Girl on Boat, 1922) and it has spread from it’s Scottish origins to be in widespread current use across the UK.

By the end of the 16th century, pet had shifted from being just a noun to working hard as an adjective. Here’s where the “pet peeve” and “pet hate” constructions began. At this point in time, it was used to refer specifically to animals, as in a “pet dog” or “pet parrot,” but by the 19th century, it was being used more generically as an adjective to mean something that is “Specially cherished; for which one has a particular fondness or weakness (OED, Vol. XI, p. 626).


The humorous or ironic use of the word in phrases like “pet peeve” can be seen in Mark Twain’s 1880 Tramp’s Abroad: “For years my pet aversion had been the cuckoo clock.” And the phrase “pet peeve” is actually defined by C.H. Darling (1919) in Jargon Book as “the thing that  provokes you the most.”

It’s worth mentioning – if only as a gratuitously feeble excuse for trying to bump up hits on the site by the porn-trawling web spiders that look for such things – that in 1969, Penthouse magazine instituted the annual award of “Penthouse Pet of the Year.” Here we see the word acquiring a very specific connotation of the word as a noun marked by the attributive Penthouse, which is used correctly as a noun modifier so as to preserve the validity of the trademark.

Penthouse Pet

So if “pet peeve” is one of your pet peeves, rest assured that it has a long and glorious history and has merely undergone an emotional transformation to its current status of being a little passé or cliched. Well, that’s my current pet theory.


1 Comment

Filed under Etymology, Vocabulary

One response to “pet /’pɛt/

  1. Paul Bennett

    Love your exhaustive and erudite comment on “pet'” Thank you. I will continue to use pet peeve and pet hate.

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