My Word: Word from the "Islands of the Dogs"

Dogs were once called canaries. And canaries were once called canary birds.

Changing terms: The canary bird came to be known simply as the canary.

Changing terms: The canary bird came to be known simply as the canary.

The story goes back a long way.

Think of the Canary Islands, off the northern tip of Africa. The name Islas Canarias is likely derived from the Latin name Canariae insulae, meaning "Islands of the Dogs", a name applied originally only to Gran Canaria.

According to the historian Pliny the Elder, the Mauretanian king Juba II named the island Canaria because it contained "vast multitudes of dogs of very large size".

Another speculation is that the so-called dogs were actually a species of monk seal (canis marinus or "sea dog" was a Latin term for "seal") critically endangered and no longer present in the Canary Islands. The word canary goes back to the Latin canarius, from canis.

And you have probably guessed what canis means now. It means dog.

The dogs were probably not indigenous, but were probably taken to the islands by earlier invaders from Spain or Africa. Wild dogs appeared in the largest island and so the group of islands eventually came to be known as the Canary Islands.

Native to the islands were small birds and these birds were taken to Europe in the 16th century and were called canary birds.

These birds were green, or greenish yellow, tinged with brown, and not unlike the English bird called the greenfinch.

Eliezer Edwards, in his 1901 dictionary, said the wild birds had louder and clearer notes than the tame varieties.

Soon the birds’ name was shortened to canary.

The dogs were long forgotten, but the name canary lingers on.

Shakespeare had a go at it when he said in Henry 1V “you have drunk too much of the Canaries”. He also said, speaking of a medicine, “that’s able to breath life into a stone and make you dance canari”.

Some suggest the word cynic comes from the Canary Islands. Well, Stewart Edelstein  does in  his book Dubious Doublets.

Then he goes on to say chenille and cynosure might be dog-based words also.

What type of dogs were on the Canary Islands?

My information suggests the dogs were Canary mastiff – a large dog breed originally bred for working livestock­­ – and ­­ a similar type of dog, a Cane corso.

Cane corso dogs did better in small houses/ apartments whereas a presa canario, or Canary Mastiff needed more space.

The Cane corso is an Italian dog breed that is highly valued in as a companion, guard and hunting dog.

A number of words come from Canary Islands. One of these is canary, described as “a lively Spanish dance”. Another is canary wine. A third is canary bird.

And Australia gets a word in there too – a convict, “Australian slang”.

But there are other words.

Try canary coloured, canary banana, canary finch, canary grass, canary pudding, canary reed, canary stone, canary creeper and canary wood. I am sure there are many others.