the dog’s letter

 

Daß Narrenschyff ad Narragoniam by Sebastian Brant

Daß Narrenschyff ad Narragoniam by Sebastian Brant

 

 

 

The dog’s letter is a name for the letter R, from its resemblance in sound to the snarl of a dog. It was so named after Latin canina litera, used by the Roman poet Persius (Aulus Persius Flaccus – 34-62) in his first Satire:

Sed quid opus teneras mordaci radere vero
auriculas? vide sis ne maiorum tibi forte
limina frigescant: sonat hic de nare canina
littera.
translation:
But where is the need to grate tender ears with biting truth? See to it, lest haply the thresholds of the great should grow cold to you: here from the nostril sounds the canine letter.

 

In French, the equivalent la lettre canine seems to have first appeared, with reference to Persius (Perse in the text) in 1526 in the treatise on typography Champ Fleury Au quel est contenu Lart & Science de la deue & vraye Proportion des Lettres Attiques, quon dit autrement Lettres Antiques, & vulgairement Lettres Romaines proportionnees selon le Corps & Visage humain, by the humanist, printer and librarian Geoffroy Tory (circa 1480-1533):

R lettre canine - Champ Fleury - Geoffroy Tory

 

The dog’s letter was first used by the poet and clergyman Alexander Barclay (circa 1484-1552) in The Shyp of Folys of the Worlde (1509), an adaptation of Daß Narrenschyff ad Narragoniam (1494), by the German humanist Sebastian Brant (1458-1521):

This man malycious whiche troubled is with wrath
Nought els soundeth but the hoorse letter R
Thoughe all be well, yet he none answere hath
Saue the dogges letter.
translation:
This malicious man who is troubled with wrath
Sounds nothing else but the hoarse letter R
Though all be well, yet he has no answer
Save the dog’s letter.

In The English Grammar (circa 1637), the poet and playwright Ben Jonson (circa 1573-1637) wrote:

R

Is the Dogs Letter, and hurreth in the sound; the tongue striking the inner palate, with a trembling about the teeth. It is sounded firm in the beginning of the words, and more liquid in the middle and ends; as in

rarer, riper.

And so in the Latin.

In The Westminster Review of April 1830, a critic wrote, about Satan by R. Montgomery:

Mr. Montgomery begins well—Satan, by Montgomery, a bold and original authorship. Then turning the leaf, we are somewhat startled by these three words on the next page, To MY FRIEND. As there is only the difference of the dog’s letter between friend and the quality of the subject, we looked to the Errata, thinking it probable there was a misprint of fiend; but as none is acknowledged, we suppose the friend is one whom it is not decorous more distinctly to particularize. It is the fashion of the day to make biography a work of friendship. Moore writes the life of Byron; Campbell is the historian of Lawrence; Paris takes the life of Davy, and Mr. Montgomery handles Satan. Indeed, on looking again at the Address, we discover the ingenuity of the device, on one page stands “To my Friend,” “Satan, Book 1st,” is the next title, completing the Dedication. As thus, To my Friend Satan his First Book.

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