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Offensive Epithets

A Despised Animal?

The Greeks' habit of speaking ill of women is notorious. Perhaps less notorious is that they were also strangely accustomed to speaking ill of dogs. As the prologue notes, kyon (the vocative form of kyōn)was an insult, one that could apply to a person who was greedy, cowardly, treacherous, irritating, or vulgar. In ancient comedy many sarcastic remarks leveled at impudent women and greedy demagogues play on the figure of the dog. In Aesop's fables the dog strikes no better figure, being implicated in stories about unworthy behavior and symbolizing opportunism, greed, or cowardice. Does this mean the dog was a despised animal? Did the Greeks perhaps-like the ancient Hebrews and some peoples in Islamic traditions today-feel disgust for dogs?

This is in fact the prevailing view. Despite slightly varying conclusions, scholars have so far assumed that if kyon is an insult, this means that in Greece the dog was despised, or at least found particularly repugnant in some aspect. But this apparently straightforward thesis does not stand up to a simple objection: ancient sources do not confirm this alleged contempt for the dog. Indeed, one finds no traces of it in the Homeric poems, where, kyon is an uncommonly frequent insult. So how can this riddle be solved?

One proposed solution notes the frequency with which the epic poems evoke dogs in threats of outrageous treatment of corpses. When a Homeric hero wants to terrorize an enemy, he threatens to cut him down and leave his corpse to the beasts, and in most cases the beasts assigned to the horrible dismemberment of the dead are dogs. Thus, it is argued, the dog in Homer is clearly the necrophagic, corpse-eating animal par excellence, and from this repugnant aspect arose the insulting use of kyōn. This is possible. But why then did terms such as "vulture [gyps]" or "raven [korax]" not figure among insulting expressions as well? This explanation only restates the problem without resolving the contradiction: why among necrophagic animals was it just the dog-the one closest to and a co-worker of humans-who earned the unenviable role as a term of insult?

Moreover, the sources do not confirm even the presumed discredit that necrophagy cast on the whole canine species. True, in some cases dogs were excluded from sacred spaces for reasons of ritual purity: for example, we know they were not allowed to enter the Acropolis of Athens or to touch ground on the island of Delos. But certainly it cannot be said that dogs were impure animals tout court, excluded from all sacred spaces. In some sanctuaries, for example those of Asclepius, they were not only tolerated but even venerated as belonging to the god and as a source of healing. Again, if dogs were considered impure per se, the Greeks, so preoccupied with risks of contamination, surely would not have kept them indoors, as was indeed frequently the case. In fact, it seems that in Greece the category of impure did not apply to any animal species.

To get around this problem, some scholars propose a second theory, which nevertheless only shifts explanation to a chronological axis: the dog, they say, was not well favored in the epoch prior to which our first sources date. The Homeric use of kyon as an insult would thus be a linguistic relic of the Mycenaean period, a holdover from a time when the dog was not yet completely domesticated and was therefore perceived as an unreliable companion. The expression, then, would have persisted as a fixed formula after the animal's change in status. According to others, the origin of the insult kyon might be located still further back,within the formative period of Indo-European languages, or else looked for in neighboring cultures, such as those of the Near East. In the first case, the Greeks would have inherited it from their Indo-European ancestors; in the second, they would have imported it from the Near East during the epic's protohistory. In either situation the insult would have entered Greek usage purely as a desemanticized expression, and this would explain why, in the formative period of the Homeric poems, the denigrating use of kyon no longer corresponded to an active attitude of contempt for the dog.

It seems quite clear from this brief survey that in the absence of concrete proof, the idea that using kyon as an insult must necessarily correspond to a general repugnance for the dog is untenable, and indeed contrary to the evidence of ancient sources, or can be accepted only at the price of unprovable hypotheses: references to prehistoric origins lost in the mists of time or appeals to distant cultural influences from the East. But if commentators have not doubted the correctness of this assumption-the necessity of a link between the use of the animal term as an insult and some disrespect for the animal in question-it is because of its apparent self-evidence. For example, the fact that one is not being complimentary when one calls someone a worm is most obviously explained by an intention to compare one's interlocutor with an animal traditionally conceived as slimy, slow, and primitive, helpless but infesting, and associated with foul-smelling putrefaction. But on closer inspection, not all cases of insult using animal categories can be so easily explained.

The assumption that an offensive use of an animal name implies bad repute for that animal within the human community arises from a specific way of analyzing and classifying the mechanism of insult. The offense of an animal category arises from a metaphor of the antonomastic variety: that is, the reason an animal name functions as an insult is that it is traditionally associated with at least some element of a negative character,which becomes the key to the offensive metaphor. For example, with the insults ass and pig (in Italian as in English), the operative traits are, respectively, stupidity or stubbornness and filthiness or gluttony. Thus to tell someone, "You're a pig!," amounts to saying "You're filthy" or "You're a glutton," like the filthy and gluttonous animal, through antonomasia.

This way of analyzing the offensive figure, while correct, has its limits. First, it tends to resolve the metaphor into equivalence without explaining what communicative advantage the figurative expression may have over the literal. Second, it poses serious problems to someone who wants to identify a term of equivalence for the metaphor dog. Even in many languages that use this term of abuse-Italian, German, English, and Russian, besides ancient Greek and Latin-if one tries to specify in each case what exact negative property or properties hold the key to the outrageous metaphor, one is faced with quite a quandary. In Italian, for instance, the insult Dog! does not seem to yield to any easy analysis. One can use it for quite disparate reasons of hostility and resentment, from an unjustified racism that figures the unwanted foreigner as a "bastard dog" to the pain of a suffered betrayal by a traitor who is a "damn dog," not to mention that the insult dog appears in one of the most common blasphemous expressions in the Italian language. In all these cases, what is the negative cultural trait traditionally associated with the dog that might constitute the metaphor's key element? To what specific negative feature or features of the animal are we alluding when we call someone a dog?

The situation is no different with the Greek insult kyon, for which it is very difficult to identify a precise literal equivalent. When ancient commentators were faced with annotating a passage containing this insult or one of its derivatives, they explained that to call someone a dog was to accuse them of anaideia, a term usually translated as "shamelessness" but which in Greek had a somewhat wider sense.It literally means "a lack of aidōs," that is, a lack of restraint, the moral curb responsible for inhibiting any behavior subject to ethical censure.

The generality of anaideia has understandably not satisfied those modern commentators interested in specifying the key metaphor of the insult: why should the dog represent immorality in general, unrestraint in all its possible manifestations? What canine behavior is so shameless that it became emblematic of every manner of excess and impudence? On this crucial question anyone can speculate and express an opinion. But the fact remains that no single canine characteristic can account for all the uses of the insult found in ancient texts. To take just a Homeric example, when Achilles calls Agamemnon "dog-faced" this might allude specifically to the Achaean chieftain's greed, representing it offensively as canine voracity, but what greediness is involved when Hephaestus calls his mother Hera "dog-faced" for excluding him from Olympus on account of his lameness?

Analysis of the offensive uses of kyōn and its derivatives clearly shows that the trope did not have one single key: the dog was not emblematic of one particular human attitude or behavior. The only certainty here is that the dog functioned as an insult in a wide range of contexts-and that it is not always easy to specify what precise property of kyōn the metaphor is meant to reference. In short, even given that the mechanism underlying the affront dog was the common one of antonomasia, it is still not clear what kyon was antonomastic for. In the Odyssey the goatherd Melanthius accosts the swineherd Eumaeus with the insult "dog, skilled at tricks." But to criticize falsehood and cunning malice, why did he not choose the wolf or the fox, the clever animal deceivers par excellence in Greek culture, instead of implicating the dog? Similar questions arise when a faithless woman is called a bitch: why is it only the dog that is enlisted to hurl the accusation of unbridled sexual lust when the animals that Greek figured as lascivious were the goat, the cow, and the horse?

At this point we should ask whether the impasse to which the traditional explanations inevitably lead doesn't result from an error in posing the problem. Instead of trying to explain away the variety and complexity of disparaging uses of kyōn and its derivatives, we can simply take note of it and pose the question in these terms: why was the dog capable of serving as the term of censure for such a wide range of behaviors?

Insults and Animal Categories

Let us step back a bit from ancient Greece and turn to some considerations of a more general nature. Since the insult dog is by no means unique to Greek but is found in many languages ancient and modern, the problem of its multivalence deserves to be viewed from a wider perspective than the one adopted so far in historical studies.

Many societies that use the word for dog as an insult do not by any means regard the animal with repugnance, and the various negative cultural elaborations that play on it coexist with the animal's conspicuous presence in daily life, even its extraordinary nearness to man: as a collaborator or even a vicarious surrogate in the work of its owner, an institutional frequenter of domestic domains, and a presence in public social spaces. The apparently contradictory situation in ancient Greece is not an exception but the norm. It is therefore likely that the reason for such a cultural model (and its common occurrence) may be found in some structural feature of the human-canine relationship.

This question, truly quite complex, fits into the wider anthropological topic of denigrating uses of animal terms. A first observation of interest here is that in the various languages with insults using animal names, there seems to be a certain tendency to put the names of domestic animals to such use. In 1964 the distinguished British anthropologist Edmund Leach wondered about this fact. By reflecting on English vocabulary and comparing it with usage in the Tibeto-Burmese Kachin culture, with which he was closely familiar, Leach tried to articulate a general theory of animal insults. In a study of considerable interest, he claimed to find a correlation between the offensive use of an animal's name and its position in the cultural taxonomy: it is not so much the animal's negative characteristics as its position with respect to humans that determines the choice of zoonym for an insult. The reasons explaining the selection are thus to be found in the animal's nearness to or distance from cultural spaces (domestic/hunted/wild), its ease or difficulty of classification, its dietary position (edible/edible with restrictions/taboo), and so on.

In Leach's analysis it turned out that the insulting animal names come mainly from species that occupy an ambiguous position in the classification scheme, in a poorly defined space between one category and another: those animals closest to but not identical with humans and so not entirely friendly but not completely wild and hostile either. For being unclassifiable, such species are perceived with a certain anxiety and tension and are subject to taboo, whether explicit or unconscious. Because of this, the zoonyms most used for insults come from fond domestic animals-so-called pets-such as the dog, perceived as halfway between human and beast, or else from hunted species, toward which human feelings alternate between friendly nearness and aggressive impulses of hostility. These names' efficacy in giving offense and in cursing derives from the fact that in pronouncing them the speaker sets off the charge of tension inherent in their being subject to taboo.

This theory, summarized here in broad strokes, is in fact quite complicated and subject to several objections. For instance, how does it explain an insult such as pig or swine? The pig is a domestic animal but certainly no pet. Nor can it be counted among hunted prey animals, nor is eating it taboo. Again, how to explain the use of rat, one of the most common animal insults in English? Still, Leach's study has the merit of having raised a problem that loses none of its importance for being unresolved. Although it is theoretically possible to construct a derogatory metaphor with any animal name-most people called an animal, of whatever sort, will be offended by the mere fact of being degraded to a category considered inferior-reality shows that in any culture only some species are suited to this, while others are employed in laudatory metaphors. For instance, the boar and the lion often appear in positive metaphors of courage and invincibility. But why are the positive aspects of these animals, so fierce and aggressive toward humans, their herds, and their crops, picked out instead of their negative aspects (even if still present) of bloodthirsty ferocity and wildness? Again, why is the fox, a harmful animal that is despised as a chicken killer, nevertheless stereotyped by its positive aspect of cleverness, such that one expresses appreciation for a sly person by calling them a fox? Conversely, the pejorative charge of an animal name cannot always be ascribed to an explicit hostility that a culture has toward that animal nor linked to a negative ethological trait in the animal. In English, for example, it is no compliment to call someone a horse, despite the notorious British passion and admiration for horses.

One theory worth testing would be to see whether an animal's position of strength or weakness relative to man determines the positive or negative valence of the metaphorical expressions using its name. This might explain not only why subordinate domestic animals lend themselves more than wild animals to pejorative uses but also why animals such as the dog, cow, donkey, pig, and sheep-subordinate and generally parasitically dependent-so often become objects of negative cultural expressions while animals no less domestic but more autonomous and independent, like the cat, more often give rise to positive expressions. Also consistent with this explanation is the contrast between insults such as worm, fly, and rat-taken from animals that are harmful but easily overcome-and the positive metaphors linked to the wolf and the fox, animals also harmful but considered man's worthy antagonists, disdainfully aloof and independent and difficult to capture and kill. In northern Thailand, for instance, such an opposition seems to be expressly recognized, and all domestic animals are considered stupid in comparison with wild animals, which are always thought of as clever and wise. To formulate a theory of such general scope, however, would require the study of a much wider sample of ethnographic data on the uses of animal names and would digress widely from my main focus. I will therefore limit myself to using a more general idea as a working hypothesis: a causal connection exists between the expressions, positive or negative, that a culture derives from an animal's name and the position that animal occupies with respect to the human community.

Questions of Position

As in many places in the world, in the Thai village of Baan Phraan Muan (Village of the hunter Muan) the only domestic animals allowed to frequent the inside of houses, to come and go at will as humans do, are dogs and cats. Other animals-pigs, buffalo, chickens-live strictly outdoors and shelter underneath the family house at night, among the pillars on which the structure is raised. They are not crowded in at random, however, but occupy spaces assigned with great precision and in relation to the arrangement of rooms in the house above. In this way, at night every species resides on a part of the ground on which the pillars rest, and each "stable" that these columns mark out matches one type of animal: one in the sub-bedroom, another in the sub-living room, and so forth. Very rigid norms govern the distribution of living spaces, including those outside, and even require, in the case of an animal trespassing outside its assigned area, the performance of apotropaic rituals, designed to ward off possible negative consequences. For example, if an ox or a buffalo accidentally lies down in the subatrium, an area considered dirty that is meant to remain empty, a ceremony is required that expels the bad luck from the house.

The inhabitants of Baan Phraan Muan thus pay close attention and attach great importance to the boundaries and distribution of spaces and appear particularly unsettled when an animal disrupts the order that regulates traffic in domestic spaces. But to dogs and cats, tradition grants almost complete freedom of movement, and community members recognize this exceptional privilege: everyone knows that dogs and cats are special animals, and among domestic animals they constitute a specific subcategory.

Although they share this prerogative, dogs and cats are nonetheless not treated the same. Cats enjoy free access to all rooms in the house, without restriction; dogs are kept out of bedrooms and seem in general to possess a negative symbolic relation to ideas about sex and marriage. Cats are considered useful and beneficial: it's said that they have the power to keep the house cool, that they are efficacious in rituals to summon rain, and that Buddha himself created them to catch mice. Dogs, on the other hand, are explicitly defined as animals of low rank and are used in one of the worst insults you can hurl at someone: "A dog mated with your ancestors!" Why all the distrust, reservations, and bad judgments regarding dogs?

Here we are lucky to have the answer from the villagers themselves, who say it is because dogs eat excrement and couple with their parents and relatives. Let's examine these two reasons. The first, the tendency toward coprophagy, is certainly one of the animal's characteristics and, though not unique to it, at least distinguishes it from the cat, in which the phenomenon is not seen with such frequency. In this case, then, the canine behavior seems to furnish a distinctive trait that makes negative cultural elaborations of this sort possible. In other words, it provides an "affordance," an ethological fact that offers the symbolic imagination a good foothold for constructing metaphors, figures, and stereotypes in which the dog plays the role of a negative referent, not least the use of its name as an insult. But a hint of pretext in the second reason offered somewhat darkens the clear evidence of native explanation: the dog, they say, is incestuous. Generally speaking, no animal considers kinship an impediment to copulation, and dogs as well as cats are no exception to this rule. Why, then, is this behavior noticed and censured only in dogs?

The prejudice underlying the explicit reasons offered by informants is not exclusive to the traditions of this Thai village but rather seems to be a regular feature in many folk theories about the lowly position of dogs. Here we can cite another case, this time from ancient Greece. In a passage discussing why in Rome the priest of Jupiter, the flamen dialis, was not allowed to touch or even speak the name of the dog or the goat, Plutarch notes that in Greece as well the dog endured ritual exclusions:

Some argue that the dog is not allowed in the Acropolis of Athens or on the island of Delos because they copulate openly-as though cattle, pigs, and horses copulate in bedrooms and not shamelessly in the open!

This brilliant critical observation has not received the attention it deserves. Most classical scholars have been content to repeat the traditional explanation, that the dog was despised in Greece because it explicitly displays its sexuality-no matter that Plutarch had already pointed out the absurd pretext of this claim that imputes to dogs alone sexual conduct that is in fact common to all animal species. To bolster the "objective" validity of this traditional Greek explanation in modern times, appeals are made to the authority of Sigmund Freud, who argued that "man's best friend" has lent its name to disparaging uses because dogs pay no heed to the two strongest taboos imposed by civilization: that linked to sexual behavior and that associated with the handling of excrement. Rebellious against the cultural imperative to repress the organic, like an eternal infant incapable of feeling disgust for its excrement or shame for its sexuality, the dog arouses an unconscious reaction of rejection and contempt in man, expressed in the various cultural forms of a negative stamp-insults, proverbs, traditional stories-that concern it.

It's hardly necessary to emphasize that the Freudian explanation still leaves open the important question that Plutarch's incisive critique raises: since no animal shares with man the sense of shame for its sexuality or revulsion for its excrement, why do dogs alone attract such heavy human contempt in these areas?

When Plutarch notes the strange bias of his compatriots who are shocked by canine sexuality but not at all upset by the sexual exhibitions of other domestic animals, he identifies a crucial node for interpreting the cultural representation of the dog, and not only in ancient Greece. Let us look more closely, then, at what position dogs may occupy in the cultural spaces organized by man.

A Metonymic Subject

A famous study by Claude Lévi-Strauss, focused on the problem of the relationship between categories of proper names given to individuals of various species-humans, animals, plants-and the classification systems of the cultures that produce them, has some useful pages on the specific position of dogs within the human community. Starting from an analysis of the typologies of proper names reserved for different categories of domestic animals, Lévi-Strauss notes that until recently in France, dog names were normally either abstract or derived from theatrical and mythic sources, with an implicit prohibition on the use of personal names. In fact, in Italy also until not very long ago, names such as Giorgio and Pietro were not given to house animals. So the fact that a recent trend has introduced such usage among pet owners is thus a good subject of study for anthropologists of modern urban society. But Lévi-Strauss's finding about customary naming practices no doubt still holds good for most traditional rural cultures, and the probability of encountering dogs named Pierre-Georges or Christine in mountain villages and the countryside is presumably quite low in France, as elsewhere.

In this naming taboo, Lévi-Strauss identified an unconscious cultural response to a profound discomfort. In essence, the dog is in such a promiscuous position, such an intimate participant in human social life, that giving it a human name would cause an excessive identification. It may live in the house, in the bedroom, be present at its master's meals, "dialogue" with people in the house-but at least in its name it must be clear that a dog is a dog and a human is something else. This concern for distinction thus falls upon the dog, and only the dog, precisely because of its special position with respect to the community. In other words, this position is distinguished by a marked metonymy-that is, by the animal's full participation in the ranks of the social organization. Other domestic animals, such as cattle and pigs, also participate in the human community in which they live. But their metonymic relation is weaker, since, although close to man, they are always perceived as nonhuman or instruments of labor or even objects of our action, there for our use and consumption. Dogs, on the other hand, not just are constantly and intensely present in cultural spaces but also collaborate and communicate in ways that make them social subjects within the human community. By contrast, with animals such as horses and birds the relation with humans may be so much less participative that it becomes at most metaphorical: such animals, clearly distinct and distant, are perceived as decidedly other, beings different from humans that can be represented only through an act of transference.

In summary, then, some animals are felt to be decisively different and other and thus can be thought of at most as metaphors for humanity; others instead are "metonymic," having their own part in the theater of social life, but only as objects of human action; and finally there is the dog, not only implicated metonymically in the spaces of human action but also participating as a subject. This is why, according to Lévi-Strauss, only the dog must be held apart from man in the naming system: participation at the level of individual names as well would provoke intolerable aggravation at the dog's extraordinary "humanity" by placing a disturbing emphasis on the fact that it is perceived as a metonymic subject, a member of the human community and a social actor in its own right.

Although they relate to data from a society quite different from ancient Greece, Lévi-Strauss's reflections offer an ideal analytical tool, one worth testing in a different cultural context. The distinctions it introduces permit one to think about the relationship between humans and dogs in categories more refined than those generally evoked. Labels such as proximate and domestic, so often employed in discussions of the dog, are altogether too vague and lacking in explanatory power. Just consider the fact that they apply equally well to other animals-such as cats and farmyard animals-which elicit cultural formations clearly different from and even the opposite of those regarding dogs. With the dual definition of metonymic subject we are instead able to reflect on the position of the animal and on the structural constants of the human-dog relationship, taking into account both their unique and specific traits and how these were imagined in ancient culture.