"Mutt" etymology (speculative)

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Sun May 30 19:03:37 UTC 2004

A correspondent has asked about the conventional dictionary etymology of
"mutt" (said to be from "muttonhead").

Apparently Lighter does not accept such a derivation: HDAS, vol. 2, p. 629:

<<mutt _n._ [orig. unkn.] 1.a. a worthless dog; mongrel. ... [Always the
prevailing sense; there appears to be no sound semantic basis for assuming
derivation fr. MUTTONHEAD, as asserted by var. authorities.]>>

I find the "muttonhead" etymology presented without qualification or doubt
by OED, MW3, Mathews, etc. (but not by the Century Dictionary).

After a little inspection of available materials, I do not find the
"muttonhead" etymology very plausible. If there is good evidence for it, I
hope one of the lexicographers will be so kind as to enlighten us.

Here is my alternative speculation, which seems equally plausible
phonetically and more plausible semantically (to me anyway).

I believe the central or basic sense of "mutt" was originally "ignoble or
worthless dog" -- similar to "cur". The early dictionary citations show the
term referring to a dog from "1898-1900" [HDAS], to a racehorse from 1899,
and to a person from 1899. But in the applications to horses "mutt" appears
similar to "dog" (as also applied to racehorses at about the same time),
and in the early applications to persons a figurative origin with "mutt" =
"dog" is at least reasonable. Early citations of "mutt" do not appear to
support a sense of stupidity or foolishness, which is the usual sense of

I believe in establishing word origins it is necessary to (try to) account
for the earliest usages, and here is the earliest one which I can find (I
hope some earlier ones can be found):


_Daily Herald_ (Delphos OH), 12 March 1898: p. 3(?), col. 2ff:

<<Just here a little mut thrust his head in at the door and shouted
"Extree!" He couldn't have been more than eight years old, and was
barefooted and bareheaded. .... The eight year old mut crossed the room and
stood wistfully looking into Cagg's face. .... Round the corner into
Thompson street we found our way, two well-dressed men, and the shabby
little mut. .... The mut burst in with a loud yell. ....>>


Here the mut is a poor boy selling newspapers. "Mut" would seem to be like
"guttersnipe" or "ragamuffin". Certainly "muttonhead" cannot serve here and
it is not close in sense or flavor. I speculate that "mut" here is a
figurative development from the sense "low-class dog" which is still
prevalent today.

Well, if not from "muttonhead" then whence "mutt"?

What about "mutton dog"?

What is a mutton dog? It's a sheep-killing dog. Mutton dogs, along with
other antisocial dogs, are (or were) killed routinely. Likely "mutton dog"
was generalized to a derogatory term for a scruffy feral or semi-feral dog


DARE, vol. 3, p. 745:

<<mutton hound n 1968 DARE (Qu. J2, .. Joking or uncomplimentary words  ..
for dogs) Inf WV1, Mutton hounds--kill sheep; WV13, Mutton hound.>>


_Indiana Weekly Messenger_ (Indiana PA), 16 Feb. 1881: p. 3(?), col. 3:

<<ERIE COUNTY can point with pride to the work of her mutton dogs in 1880.
 From a long official list in the Observer we condense the following: the
number of sheep killed during the year was 434; the number damages, [sic]
261. The amount paid to the owners of the sheep, out of the fund raised by
the dog tax, was $2,439 55. .... Erie County should get up a bench show of
mutton dogs.>>


_Indiana Democrat_ (Indiana PA), 16 March 1882: p. 3(?), col. 1:

<<There is considerable variation in the price of sheep in Mahoning county,
Ohio. On the books of the Assessor they are valued at $1.50 per head, but
when the mutton dog kills them the price advances to six and seven dollars
per head.>>


_Daily Gazette and Bulletin_ (Williamsport PA), 23 Sep. 1887: p. 2, col. 2:

<<Last month's sheep bill ran up to .... The mutton dogs must have lived
high during August.>>


In summary I propose the (still speculative) etymology "mutt" < "mutton
dog" (and/or possibly "mutton hound") as more likely than the (apparently
speculative) dictionary derivation "mutt" < "muttonhead". Does anyone have
a cogent counter-argument? Is/are there additional data which would favor
the "muttonhead" derivation, or some other possibility?

-- Doug Wilson

More information about the Ads-l mailing list