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The Word

Is it time to rebrand mutts?

Why don’t we have a better word for mixed-breed dogs? Maybe because the whole history of canine naming is lined up against it.

Lesley Becker/Globe Staff Illustration; iStock

Mutts are having a moment. Celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Charlize Theron, Miranda Lambert, and Sandra Bullock have adopted rescue mutts, and last fall Ralph Lauren used them to advertise his accessories line. The long reign of pedigreed purebreds—capped by the short crazy disco era of “designer dog” hybrids like Labradoodles and cockapoos—seems to be waning, as dog owners become more aware of the health risks of overbreeding. Even the elite ranks of the American canine establishment are catching up. Earlier this year, the Westminster Kennel Club decided to let mixed-breed dogs compete along with pure-breeds for the first time in its history; the American Kennel Club made the switch in 2010.

But there’s just one problem: what to call these dogs. At Westminster and AKC events, mutts compete under the grand-sounding but potentially misleading category “All-American.” (What about one from Canada? And does that make other dogs less completely American?) Other terms for mutt—“mixed-breed, “cross-breed,” “mongrel”—have a pejorative edge, emphasizing their mixed-up bloodlines. There’s no “domestic short-hair,” the neutral catchall term for “whatever it is” cats, in the canine kingdom. In fact, for centuries, our terms for dogs have been all about asserting that our highly valued animals are not mutts. Now that we’re embracing these dogs, we may need some new ways to describe them.

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The original names for dog breeds in English derived mostly from place names (Labrador, Weimaraner, Pomeranian) or from the dogs’ function. And until the show craze of the mid-19th century, dogs were usually bred in service of their function, not for looks. A “retriever” was bred to be good at fetching downed game birds. “Bulldogs” were bred to fight bulls. “Lurchers” were the greyhound-like dogs poachers used to steal game, their name deriving from an archaic term for “thief.”

Once dog shows began and kennel clubs were formed in the United States and Britain in the late 19th century, breeders began registering their animals and keeping “stud books,” with family trees guaranteeing generations of pristine lineage. Names became official—and so did a definition of the breed that was often based on superficial markers of purity, like certain coat colors or nose shapes. “The name came with the genetic isolation of the population,” said James Serpell, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania veterinary school.

Within a few decades, these dogs, many bred with close relatives to select for attributes like flat faces or short legs (but not, say, courage when faced with a bull), became unfit for the chores that had given them their names. Of course, some hounds still hunt, and anyone with a terrier knows they’ll always dig into the terra. But many breed names began to seem like relics of a history that had been bred almost entirely away. Confront an English bulldog with a bull today and the dog will probably wheeze and then flop down, dejected: Breeding for a flat face has produced severe respiratory problems and a jaw too short to grip.

In the late 1980s, with a backlash brewing against the worst damages of overbreeding, a breeder in Australia put together a Labrador and a poodle and got: a “Labradoodle”! The hybrid or “designer dog”—a first generation mix from two purebreds—was born, and along with it a new and nifty form of nomenclature. The first hybrids were “Labradoodles” and “cockapoos,” two poodle mixes designed as medium-size dogs that would work well for families. But the trend quickly reached mad-scientist degrees of experimentation. The names represent rampant linguistic and genetic hodgepodgery: “Eskipoo” (American Eskimo + miniature poodle). “Siborgi” (Siberian husky + corgi). “Dorkie” (dachshund + yorkie). Sometimes, as with cocktails, the mixing feels done more for the sake of the name than the mix itself: Havanese + soft coated wheaten terrier = “hava-wheat.” Chihuahua + pit bull = “chi-pit.”

Like “wholphins” or “ligers,” these portmanteau hybrid names were both uncanny—a little bit Franken-dog—and cute. And, for dog breeders, the names had the added benefit of lending class—and predictability, and branding, and therefore a justification for charging in the four figures for what would otherwise be, of course, a mutt. “It’s a kind of parallel pedigree,” said Harriet Ritvo, an MIT historian who has written about dog breeding and hybridity in the 19th century.

As it has become clear that hybrids have their own drawbacks—a “king rat” may have all the genetic flaws of both a Cavalier King Charles spaniel and a rat terrier, while costing more than either—rescue mutts, who appeal to a sense of virtue, have come into fashion instead. But while, as Serpell says, “there’s [now] a certain snob value to having a mutt,” the language doesn’t reflect that.

Going back hundreds of years, most names for nonpurebreds are put-downs, often referencing the dog’s mixed parentage—the way “mulatto” and “quadroon” once did for mixed-race people. There’s “cur,” which according to the OED once had a neutral meaning, describing a sheepdog, but grew nastier over time; “tyke,” from an Old Norse word meaning “female dog”; and “mutt,” from “mutton-head,” or idiot. There’s “mongrel,” associated with miscegenation, and “mixed-breed,” a more neutral but still breeding-linked term. The Dictionary of American Regional English lists “duke’s mixture” (referring to mixed tobacco from James Buchanan Duke’s companies); and “Heinz dog,” for the 57 varieties, both of which are evocative but not widely used, and which still emphasize impurity.

“All-American,” meanwhile, is about the blandest term you could find, evoking the adorable Frisbee-chewing pooch next door (one doggie endearment: from German “putzig,” for “cute”). It’s never going to be used by anyone not announcing an event at a dog show. But it has nothing to do with whether or not a dog meets some arbitrary set of genetic standards. And so maybe, for people who love the kind of dogs you might call just plain dogs, it’s a step in the right direction.

Britt Peterson is a writer in Washington, D.C.
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