Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site.
Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.


This past Monday, Simone and I lost our dear friend, Bart. He was our gentle, companionable black lab mix, and his mighty heart beat for more than 16 years. Despite rickety back legs and a battalion of tumors, he greeted each day with bright eyes, waggy tail and unconditional trust.

Bart loved us more than he loved himself. I think of our fallen boy whenever I read what the romantic poet Lord Byron wrote on the tomb of his Newfoundland: “Near this spot are deposited the remains of one who possessed Beauty without Vanity, Strength without Insolence, Courage without Ferocity and all the Virtues of Man, without his Vices. This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery if inscribed over human ashes, is but a just tribute to the Memory of Boatswain, a Dog.”

It’s sad how dogs, those most loyal and companionable of creatures, are treated so shabbily in our English language. It’s easy to think of common words and expressions that are negative about dogs — hangdog, underdog, dog tired, a dog’s life, you dirty dog, son of a b_____, sick as a dog, in the doghouse, you’re dogging it, going to the dogs, you’re dog meat — on and on it goes. But why don’t we say cute as a dog, amiable as a dog, loyal as a dog, loving as a dog? How many positive canine phrases leap to mind? Not many.

Bart’s irreplaceable loss to our family inspires me to share with you, dear reader, two stories of unconditional canine loyalty:

• In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus’s dog Argos is the only one who recognized the Greek hero when, after two decades of struggles to return to Ithaca, he came home disguised as a beggar. In his absence, rapacious suitors took over his house in hopes of marrying Odysseus’s wife, Penelope.

When he saw Argos, lying neglected and lice-infested on a pile of cow dung, Odysseus shed a tear but made sure that no one noticed. Argos lifted his ears, wagged his tail and “passed into the darkness of death, now that he had seen his master once more after 20 years.”

• On the grave behind an iron fence in the town of Beddgelert, North Wales, stands a marker that recounts the legend of Gelert, a hound owned by the 13th-century prince Llewellyn. One day Gelert disappeared mysteriously as his master rode out to the hunt. When the prince returned, his infant son was nowhere to be found. The child’s crib was overturned and bloody, and Gelert’s fangs were dripping with blood.

Convinced that the dog had savaged the baby, Prince Llewellyn drew his sword and plunged it into the dog. Gelert’s dying cry awoke the sleeping child, who was concealed under the bedding. Hidden under the bed was the body of an enormous wolf, with its throat torn out. Overcome with remorse, Llewellyn buried the dog with great ceremony. But the prince was ever after haunted by the dying yelp, and he never smiled again.

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