Dear Word Detective: We are just about to take on new responsibilities in the form of an eight-week-old Labrador puppy. It’s our first pet since our previous black lab died a few years ago (not like your household, which seems to be overrun with cats). While talking about it to someone, it occurred to me that “pet” was quite a strange word, and I couldn’t link it to any other words I could think of. Neither could my dictionary, but words don’t usually materialize out of thin air, so it must have a background of some kind. Any ideas? — David, Ripon, Yorkshire, UK.
One moment, please. Our household is not “overrun” with cats. We prefer to say that we are “enriched” with cats. Perhaps “richly endowed” with cats. “Cat-prosperous.” That we have “an embarrassment of cats” (certainly true in the Eyewitness News sense). Besides, somewhere in that crowd are two dogs whose destructive abilities are easily the match of their weight (which is considerable) in cats. I have yet to meet the cat capable of swallowing a sweat sock or chewing the leg off a coffee table. Then again, perhaps it’s just a matter of time.
“Pet” is an odd word. It first appeared in print in English in the 16th century, derived from the Scottish Gaelic word “paeta,” meaning “tame animal,” with two senses appearing nearly simultaneously. One was “a lamb or other domestic animal raised by hand,” while the other, possibly a derivative of the first, was “a pampered or favorite child.” The familiar modern sense of “pet” as “an animal kept for companionship” was a later development of the first sense, appearing in the early 18th century. About the same time, the second sense, “pampered child,” spawned a meaning of “Any person who is indulged, spoiled, or treated as a favorite, especially in a way that others regard with disapproval” (Oxford English Dictionary), which gave us everyone’s least favorite classmate, the “teacher’s pet.” Oddly enough, “pet” is unrelated to either “petite” or “petty,” both of which developed from the Old French “petit,” meaning “small.”
As an adjective, “pet” can be applied to domesticated animals (“pet wolverine”), to names expressing affection or familiarity (as “Betty” is a “pet name” for Elizabeth), or humorously to things particularly unloved (“Muzak is Bob’s pet hate”). “Pet” also crops up in a wide range of compounds, from “pet passport” (I kid you not) to “pet rock.”