We get quite a lot of emails here at HH. Most of them involve a deposed Nigerian prince we’ve being helping reclaim the throne through financial aid (fingers still crossed for you, Gabriel III!), but every so often something a little more worthwhile crops up—which is precisely what happened when, a few weeks ago, one of our Twitter followers, Liz Klassen, asked us about a superb word she’d come across in some even more superb literature:
I’ve run into the term “puppyism” or “puppy” in several late 18th–early 19th century novels, most notably Jane Austen books. I can tell it’s pejorative from the context, but I’ve wanted to know more about the word for a while. It sounds like such a fun word to have in the arsenal, if I could be sure I was using it properly.
So. Jane Austen and puppies. How could we resist?
Let’s start with the puppies. If you know your French, you might be a bit ahead of us on this one: puppy is thought to be descended from the French word for a doll, poupée, which makes it a distant relative of a clutch of other similarly diminutive-sounding words like puppet and poppet. Earlier still, all four of these likely have their roots in the Latin words for “boy” and “girl”, pupus and pupa—which is also where the word pupil comes from, both in the sense of a school student and (albeit with a little bit of etymological imagination) the dark circular opening in the centre of the eye:
As for the dogs, thanks to its etymological connection to a child’s plaything the word puppy was first used to refer to what we’d now a lap dog or a toy dog when it was originally imported into English in the late 1400s. It took almost another century for that meaning to broaden, so that by the mid-1500s a puppy was no longer just a lap dog, but any young or newborn dog.
Before then, English speakers had whelp, their very own Anglo-Saxon-origin word for a young or very small dog, but puppy has long since eclipsed that. Today, whelp is seldom used except as a byword for a young, disreputable man, or else some weak or inexperienced youth—which brings us neatly to puppyism.
Around the same time that puppy first came to mean “young dog” and not just “lap dog”, a figurative use of the word also began to emerge: because of the heedless, energetic behaviour of young dogs, in the mid sixteenth century puppy also began be used to refer to a naïve, credulous, or foolishly impertinent young man and woman.
That’s the pejorative sense of the word that crops up in the classic novels of the 1700s and 1800s—which is also the time when the word puppyism, or puppyhood, began to be used to refer to social naïvety or youthful inexperience:
I think him a very handsome young man, and his manners are precisely what I like and approve—so truly the gentleman, without the least conceit or puppyism. You must know I have a vast dislike to puppies—quite a horror of them. They were never tolerated at Maple Grove. Neither Mr. Suckling nor me had ever any patience with them; and we used sometimes to say very cutting things! Selina, who is mild almost to a fault, bore with them much better.
Jane Austen, Emma (1815)
“All my comfort,” she added presently, “is broken up by his manoeuvres. He keeps intruding between you and me: without him we should be good friends; but that six feet of puppyhood makes a perpetually-recurring eclipse of our friendship.”
Charlotte Brontë, Shirley (1849)
Ultimately a puppy is not just a young dog but a naïve young person, and in particular one whose knowledge of the world and of social etiquette and propriety is still being shaped; puppyism, meanwhile, is their youthful naïvety or gullible inexperience. Not that you’ll find any of that at HH, of course. Now if you’ll excuse us, we have a deposed Nigerian prince to fund.