The Grammarphobia Blog

A pet topic

Q: I’ve always wondered, but never looked up, which came first: the noun or the verb form of “pet.” Can you help?

A: The noun “pet,” originally meaning a lamb or other domestic animal raised by hand, came first, dating from 1539, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The sense of a favorite or pampered child goes back to 1568, and our modern sense of an animal kept for pleasure or companionship (dog, cat, bird, etc.) dates from 1710.

The verb meaning to treat as a pet, to stroke, or to fondle is the latecomer, dating from 1629. To “pet” in the sexual sense (making out, in other words) came along in 1921.

The sources for this usage, according to the OED, are the Scottish Gaelic peata and the Old Irish petta, which originally meant a tame animal.

Another early meaning of the noun “pet,” dating from 1590, is a fit of peevishness or ill-humor, as in the phrase “in a pet.” The origin of this usage is unknown, according to the OED.

Interestingly, the OED’s earliest recorded meaning of the noun in English is an obscure one that dates from 1515: “an act of breaking wind; a fart.” We can thank the Latin pedere (to break wind) for this usage.

You didn’t ask about the adjective, but I’d better not overlook it, considering all the grammar pet peeves in my mailbox. According to the OED, the adjective dates from 1584 and originally referred to an animal reared by hand, as the sheep in the OED‘s first published reference: “One pette sheipe.”

Coleridge was the first person to use “pet” as an adjective meaning favorite or cherished: “I cherish … a pet system” (1819). And Mark Twain was the first to use it humorously or ironically: “For years my pet aversion has been the cuckoo clock” (1880).

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