I’ve been informed that someone has declared December 2 to be “National Mutt Day.” Far be it from me to miss out on an occasion like this, especially since I have been the owner of some completely wonderful mixed breed dogs. Where did the word “mutt” come from, anyway?
In fact, it was an insult — “mutt” is short for “muttonhead.” The comic strip “Mutt and Jeff,” which was created in 1907 and ran for about 75 years, followed the misadventures of two not-very-smart guys. The assumption behind the application of the word “mutt” to mixed-breed dogs was that they were not very intelligent. When the word “mutt” came into use at the end of the nineteenth century, underlying it was a set of assumptions about immigrants and working-class people of dubious “breeding.” “Mutt” dogs were also of dubious breeding — that is to say, character. By the early twentieth century, the discourse in favor of purebred dogs had a lot in common with the rantings of supporters of eugenics. (I discuss this in more detail in Pets in America.)
So should we abandon the word “mutt” when discussing our beloved mixed-breed dogs? It’s probably too late to banish it. I presume that “National Mutt Day” is an effort to own, and thus defuse, the implications of, the word.
In any case, lots of Americans in the past loved their mixed-breed dogs, as this photo postcard of Gyp suggests. And lots of us love them today, too.
As was the experience of most children in the 1950s, my first dog was wonderful “Duke” a funny mix of dachshund and beagle. Long and brown like his dachshund parent, but with beagle legs and head. Smart and funny, with the nose of a hunter, he would follow our car when we went places. I would emerge with my mother from the grocery store or doctor’s office to see him sitting patiently by our automobile.