English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage

Since Pluto was a pup

Q: Somehow, 175 older blog posts appeared on my Grammarphobia feed – which gave me a chance to do some review.  The Jan. 25, 2013, post about the expression “since Christ left Chicago” reminded me of “since Pluto was a pup.” A great phrase.

A: The phrase “since Pluto was a pup” is a variation of an earlier, 19th-century expression, “since Hector was a pup.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the “Hector” version (which it labels as an American colloquialism) and its variants as meaning “for a very long time” or “since a long time ago.”

So was there once a grizzled old dog named Hector? Maybe, or maybe not. Here’s how the OED explains the name:

Hector may refer to the Trojan hero who lived around 1200 b.c. and whose mother Hecuba was, according to Euripides, turned into a dog (hence Hector could be regarded as her pup); it may also reflect the popularity at various times of Hector as a dog’s name.”

We’re inclined to think the latter explanation is more likely to be the origin of a 19th-century colloquialism. The literature of the 19th century—both fiction and nonfiction—is full of dogs named Hector.

The OED’s earliest citation for the “Hector” expression is from an 1895 issue of the Washington Post: “[They] have been scrapping with each other in this neighborhood ‘since long before Hector was a pup.’ ”  

But thanks to Google Books, we’ve located a slightly earlier version. It’s from George Parsons Lathrop’s novel Gold of Pleasure (1891):

“I hain’t been so hungry and thirsty as I am this minute, since Hector was pupp’d.” (To “pup” means to give birth to pups, and to be “pupped” means to be born or whelped.)

The “Pluto” version of the expression came along in the mid-20th century.

The OED’s earliest example is from 1959, but we found this earlier one in Armine Von Tempski’s novel Bright Spurs (1946): “Schultz and Yarrow have been taking people up Haleakala since Pluto was a pup.”

Who was the “Pluto” in the expression? We’re guessing that he could have been the Walt Disney cartoon character, who first appeared under that name in 1931. He was also sometimes called Pluto the Pup.

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