In Defense of the Word “Mutt”

According to the ASPCA’s statistics, 25% percent of dogs that end up in shelters are purebred. That leaves 75% percent of shelter cages filled with whoosiewhatsits and oopsiedoopsies. Mutts.

Mixed Breed DogThe assumption, whether it’s correct or not, is that purebred dogs are more “valuable,” thus they are dumped less frequently than mutts, which seem more disposable. Or, do those statistics reflect the actual totals of purebred versus mixed-breed dogs in homes across the nation? That seems unlikely.

Prior to shelter dogs becoming “trendy,” before “designer dogs” became all the rage, people knew that mutts had significant qualities that made them distinctive, if not better than purebred dogs. People would say, “Mutts are smarter,” and “Mutts are healthier.” There seemed to be a pervasive “common knowledge” mythology surrounding mutts that elevated them to the level of something to be prized.

Benji, the media darling and canine movie star of the 1970s, was a mutt – three mutts, actually (and the first and third came from city shelters). Tramp from “Lady and the Tramp” was a mutt. He looked like a Schnauzer to me, but Disney said that he was a mutt. I found one website that speculates Tramp to be an ambitious mix of Elkhound/Husky/Otterhound.

But then something happened. I’m not exactly sure what that something was, but somewhere in the 1990s the tides turned and the purebred dog became king. It happened during a time of relative wealth and comfort in the United States, and at nearly the same time that reality shows started airing, and the spring buds of social media started blossoming. Did the fact that our lives became more public, or that we could see into the public lives of others and then emulate them, have a trickle down effect into what kinds of dogs we keep? Or is it something deeper in our psychology?

Some “mixed breeds,” as they are known in shelters, have obvious origins. Anything mixed with a Pit Bull, German Shepherd, Labrador Retriever, Border Collie, Pug, Bulldog, Schnauzer, Beagle, and Pointer (among others) are pretty obvious to the trained eye. These get named on their shelter papers: “Pit mix,” “Lab mix,” and so on. Prospective owners can get at least a small glimpse of what their dog might be like, and they can make up a fancy name for it, like Sharpoo, Labrabasset Retriever Hound, or Schnoozle Terrier. We like things we can define.

“We definitely enjoy categorizing things,” said Rob Dobrenski, Ph.D., a psychologist in New York, NY, and the author of the book, Crazy: Notes on and off the Couch.  “A classic thinking error is known as ‘All or None Thinking,’ a common mistake that has us viewing the world in binary fashion, rather than the shades of grey which is usually more accurate. I’m not sure if a lack of category makes something less valuable per se, but it may very well tap into our identity with animals, for example, this is Spot, he’s a ______, versus this is Spot, he’s . . . nothing specific, actually.”

But what of the Heniz 57s, the All-American Mutts, whose dubious origins do not disclose their unique heritage? They often languish away in shelters – and worse.

Maybe the problem is with the word mutt. It comes from the Middle English word for sheep, mouton, which was blended with the French when the Normans invaded England in 1066 with their word, moton, also meaning sheep, which turned into the English word, mutton, meaning sheep flesh. Eventually, “muttonhead” was used as a term synonymous for someone who isn’t so bright, and then shortened to mutt in the late 1800s, used as both a derogatory term for a person and for a dog of questionable husbandry.

What does linguistics have to do with this? Mutt has Anglo-Saxon roots, and those words often sound harsh to our ears, like clash, gripe, and hag. A lot of swear words have Anglo-Saxon roots. We tend to favor the Latinate words in our language, like romance, boudoir, and masquerade. They simply sound nicer to us. My parents will be thrilled that I have actually used something from my Linguistics 401 class in college a billion years ago. I knew this knowledge wouldn’t go to waste.

So, mutts are not only at a social disadvantage, but they are at a linguistic and a psychological disadvantage as well. As if they didn’t have enough problems. The word mutt isn’t a “bad” word – it just sounds bad to us, and if it sounds bad, psychologically we think it might be bad.

In 2001, the FDA approved a name change for prunes because the California Prune Board wanted a more friendly, salable name for their product (as opposed to one typically thought of as a laxative). The fruit formerly known as “prunes” is now officially called “dried plums.” The “Chinese Gooseberry” was changed to “kiwifruit,” and many people refer to “garbanzo beans” as “chickpeas.” Language matters.

I propose that we either embrace the word mutt without trying to categorize our faithful friends (no more Cavichons, please), or we rename them as a whole with a word we like better. Maybe that will help the unfortunate 75% leave the shelter for loving homes.

Mixed breed isn’t a name, it’s a designation. Cur and mongrel aren’t going to cut it either, for obvious reasons. How would you “rename” mutts? And do you think it would help?

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