THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

03 June 2016

Cats and Dogs

Cats and Dogs Covarrubias Horozco
 Sebastián de Covarrubias Horozco, Emblemas morales (Madrid, 1610) 637.g.22. Centura III, emblema 79 (f. 279).

Anda agora el mundo tal
que no se cual va tras cual
[It’s upside-down!
Now, who can say
Who’s the chaser
And who the prey?]

This emblem shows mice chasing cats and hares chasing dogs (or is it the other way round?).

Nowadays I think we’d think in terms of cats chasing dogs: after all, the two are natural antagonists, as in the film of 2001. And in the 18th century this Portuguese mock epic does indeed pit the cat against the dog:

Cats and Dogs CarvalhoJoão Jorge de Carvalho, Gaticanea, ou Crudelissima guerra entre os cães, e os gatos (Lisbon, 1781) 11452.aaa.20.

(I wonder if the phrase “raining cats and dogs” refers to the commotion caused when cats and dogs fight.)

But cat vs dog isn’t the only bout in town.

Back at the dawn of literature, in Aesop’s fables, the protagonists are never cats and dogs. To further complicate the matter, cats aren’t cats. Olivia and Robert Temple argue:

Precision in the terminology also reveals facts such as that household pets in ancient Greece were not cats but domesticated polecats, or house-ferrets (galē). (The Complete Fables, p. xix).

Terminological exactitude, or the translator’s age-old desire to outdo his predecessors?

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies

References:

Alberto Pimentel, Poemas herói-comicos portugueses (Porto, 1922)
X.908/25214.

Aesop, The complete fables; translated by Olivia and Robert Temple; with an introduction by Robert Temple. (London, 1998) YK.1998.a.7044