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Since Hector was a pup

Q From Anton Sherwood: A Canadian friend of mine, born 1938, is fond of the phrase since Hector was a pup, meaning since long ago. Comment?

A Only those of us with long memories will know this one well: it was in fashion at about the time that Hector really was just a pup. It began to appear in North American newspapers around 1906 and almost immediately became a catchphrase that later spread around the English-speaking world.

There’s quite a variety of ideas behind it. Hector seems to have been a fairly common name for dogs at the time. This was borrowed from the name of the hero of the Trojan War, the son of Priam and Hecuba, who became a symbol of the consummate warrior. By the early twentieth century, pup was also well established as a mildly dismissive name for a young person, particularly an inexperienced beginner. So Hector was a pup a very long time ago indeed. Another expression of the period using his name was as dead as Hector, known from the 1860s. Anyone versed in Greek mythology (there were more then than there are now) would have remembered that, according to Euripides, in later life Hecuba was turned into a dog for blinding Polymestor, the murderer of her son Polydorus, so you might consider Hector to have been a literal pup, perhaps even the original son of a bitch.

There are other versions. In the US military, I’m told, it’s common to refer to a period in the distant past as one when Christ was a corporal. Those associated with the RAF in World War Two will know that a time in the distant past was one when Pontius was a pilot. An even older example, from sailing-ship days, according to Eric Partridge, is when Adam was an oakum boy in Chatham dockyard *.

A further variation on the theme is when Pluto was a pup. As the first example I can find is from a newspaper advert dated 1947, that looks as though it derives from Disney’s dog, who was named in 1931 after the then newly discovered (and now late) planet. Yet another was supplied by Janice Hopper: “The one I’ve used for years is ‘since Buck was a calf’” This isn’t in any reference book, either, but I turned it up in The Desert Valley by Jackson Gregory, dated 1921 (“Haven’t seen you since old Buck was a calf. Where you been keeping yourself?”) and in a newspaper of the same year. But who Buck was, nobody seems to have the slightest idea — presumably it wasn’t a reference to US president James Buchanan, who had the nickname old Buck.


* Oakum was the loose fibre created by unpicking old rope, a tedious job often used as a punishment on board ship or in prison. The word derives from Old English acumbe, literally off-combings. With tar, it was used to caulk the seams between the planks of wooden ships. An oakum boy was the apprentice to the caulkers in a dockyard, a lowly and youthful worker who, among other jobs, prepared the oakum. Chatham dockyard was an important British naval shipbuilding centre on the River Medway.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 9 Sep. 2006
Last updated: 23 Sep. 2006

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 23 September 2006.