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figure 1

 

cowardice of curs.

In days of yore some people were not content to a describe group of things—especially things in the animal kingdom—as a group of this or a group of that; they felt that more specific collective nouns were required, or at least desired. And specific they could be. Folks could not simply refer to groups of birds simply as flocks. A group of larks was an “exaltation” and one of crows was the more sinister “murder.”

Dogs might well ask if they are stuck with the more mundane “packs” and “litters,” which, after all, are words they share with other species? Well, yes and no. Not that “pack” does not have its points. Canids in general are considered pack animals in the same way that cattle are herd animals. There are pack behaviors and specific social patterns that emerge based on these behaviors. In this sense, any cohabiting group of dogs forms a “pack” so the term can be used inclusively. However, back in the day—say two centuries or more ago—when those with leisure felt it important to name groups with more precision, and perhaps more poetry, there were other expressions.
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Since society was predominantly agricultural and dogs filled roles other than as pets, perhaps there was a need for more distinctive names. Or perhaps those doing the naming were amateur philologists or folklorists who “collected” the nomenclature. Most likely: it was simple snobbery. Regardless, Americans were more familiar with the canine middle class: field dogs. Working dogs—herders, guard dogs, and hunters—can be highly respected members of rural communities, but they tend to live in separate accommodations rather than as pets in the house with the humans. When domesticated, a group of these dogs was referred to as a “kennel” rather than a pack. More specific descriptors included: a “brace” or “leash” for two greyhounds or a “couple” for a pair of harriers. And for some paradoxical reason, a kennel of hunting hounds was sometimes referred to as a “mute of hounds” and at other times as the more descriptive “cry of hounds.”reference 1 Such were “terms of venery.” For practical purposes most of this nomenclature has fallen out of fashion. The terms are likely to be unfamiliar even to dog professionals. Newborn pups are still called a “litter” and, less often, the pups themselves may be referred to as “whelps.”

In or out of use, these are pretty pallid descriptors when compared to “a zeal of zebras” or a “hover of trout.” However, when it came to the lowest class of canines, groups of unpedigreed dogs or “curs,” the language became more colorful. A grouping of this kind was reportedly referred to as a “cowardice of curs.”reference 2 Now there is a vivid collective noun for you: cowardice.

These dogs were already looked down upon as strays and the companions of the lower classes, so why add insult to injury by calling a group of curs a “cowardice?” Perhaps it was because these dogs often had to fend for themselves rather than being fed by the products of today's pet food industry. As with hunting packs everywhere, ungoverned groups of dogs chose the most vulnerable as their prey and avoided fights they could not win. These are good survival strategies, but they run counter to the image of the dog as loyal and noble; and there is no doubt that as a result curs appeared cowardly. Branding them as cowards may also have served to reinforced a notion that purebred dogs are morally superior, or at least have superior guidance from their more aristocratic owners.

Metaphorically a cur may refer to a person of mixed ancestry but more often refers to a contemptible man, probably a low-life, certainly one with a bad personality. In the early 20th century the phrase “a cowardice of curs” was also used metaphorically to refer to a group of ill-led lower-class humans, much the same as another canine reference, a “canaille,” or rabble.

In a light novel of 1916, Faith Tresilion, Eden Phillpotts offers this exchange that highlights the nature of groups of curs, both literal and figurative. Defending his mixed-breed hunting dogs, a huntsman claims it is not the breed but the leader who matters:

“What a cowardice of curs!” commented Lieutenant Baldwin; whereupon his uncle stood up for the local pack.

“They are good enough hounds,” he said. “The use of a foxhound does not demand bravery. It is the same with men. As a soldier you should know that. The leaders are brave, the rank and file look to them for that spirit that inspires a fighting regimentreference 3

The distinction Phillpotts appears to make is that cowardices of curs (whether human or canine) are defined by their lack of brave leadership. The unavoidable implication is that both dogs and the human “rank and file” are at their best—and are the bravest and most loyal—when they have the beneficent guidance of well-bred humans.

1. Chambers, Robert. 1863. The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar. Philadelphia: Lippencott & Co. 2:654.

 

 

 

2. Ibid.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Phillpotts, Eden. 1914. Faith Tresilion. New York,: The Macmillan Company. 4.

 

 

 

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About the illustration: Figure 1 shows what I imagine to be a cowardice of curs, a skulking pack of sorry creatures. © 2010 Jupiterimages Corporation.

Figure 2 is a brace of greyhounds. © 2010 Jupiterimages Corporation.

see also: cur
cf:
canaille
Last updated: January 9, 2010
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