Mubarak's poodle

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The U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks offer an unflattering picture of Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, who is now the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and thus the de facto ruler of Egypt. The most widely cited passage, dating from 2008, noted that

__ __ __ described the mid-level officer corps as generally disgruntled, and said that one can hear mid-level officers at MOD clubs around Cairo openly expressing disdain for Tantawi. These officers refer to Tantawi as "Mubarak's poodle," he said, and complain that "this incompetent Defense Minister" who reached his position only because of unwavering loyalty to Mubarak is "running the military into the ground."

This being Language Log rather than International Politics Log, I'm not going to try to evaluate the validity of this perspective, or its implications for the future of Mr. Tantawi or of Egypt. Instead, I'd like to take up some linguistic questions: Did those mid-level officers really call Mr. Tantawi an Arabic version of "Mubarak's poodle", or is this the source's English-language characterization of their attitudes? And where does the whole "X's poodle" business come from, anyhow? When did it start, and who started it? And why "poodle" rather than "yorkie", "beagle", "cocker spaniel", or whatever?

With respect to those MOD-club discussions, I can only ask LL readers who know Egyptian Arabic and the culture of the Egyptian military for their opinions.  But with respect to the history and wider resonances of X's poodle,  I can offer the fruits of a few minutes of research.

Most people will immediately think of the characterization of Tony Blair as "Bush's poodle" — thus Elizabeth Bumiller, "Bush and Blair Trade praise at White House Love Fest", NYT 11/8/2001:

The American view of Mr. Blair has not always been shared in Britain, where the prime minister is described in some newspapers and commentary as "Bush's poodle," who is doing much of the hard work of coalition building and diplomacy for the United States.

But back in 1991, George F. Will asked

Will we be spared further talk about Jordan's "moderate" King Hussein, the least kingly king and Saddam Hussein's poodle?

And the OED glosses a figurative and "derogatory" sense for poodle as "Esp. in political contexts: a person who is obsequiously or unquestioningly willing to follow or obey another; a lackey", with the earliest citation being

1907 D. Lloyd George in Hansard Commons 26 June 1429   The House of Lords consented‥. It is the right hon. Gentleman's poodle. It fetches and carries for him. It barks for him. It bites anybody that he sets it on to.

I'm sure that industrious readers will be able to antedate this usage, but for now, let's turn to the question, why "poodle"?

My first association was with the figurative sense of lapdog, which the 1913 Webster's glosses as "One who does the bidding of another; a servile follower". And Wikipedia tells us that

Despite the standard poodle's claim to greater age than the other varieties, there is some evidence to show that the smaller types developed only a short time after the breed assumed the general type by which it is recognized today. The smallest, or Toy variety, was developed in England in the 18th century, when the Havanese became popular there. This was a sleeve dog attributed to the West Indies from whence it traveled to Spain and then to England. The continent had known the poodle long before it came to England. Drawings by the German artist, Albrecht Durer, establish the breed in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was the principal pet dog of the later 18th century in Spain, as shown by the paintings of the Spanish artist Francisco Goya. France had toy poodles as pampered favorites during the reign of Louis XVI at about the same period.

Still, I don't think that Lloyd George in 1907 was talking about the miniature rhinestone-collared lapdog variety of poodle — and a standard poodle is not likely to be welcome in very many laps.  A plausible indication of the stereotype that Lloyd George was trading on is given by the entry in the 1890 Young Folks' Cyclopaedia of Common Things, which said that

The Poodle (German pudel) dog first came from Germany, but is now common in almost all countries. It is a water dog, is very bright, and may be taught many smart tricks.

In fact,  Lloyd George's  insult seems rather close to the often-caricatured "running dog" expression, about which Wikipedia says that

Running dog is a literal translation into English of the Chinese/Korean communist pejorative, 走狗 'zǒu gǒu', meaning lackey. It is derived from the eagerness with which a dog will respond when called by its owner, even for mere scraps. Its first recorded use in English was in 1937.

This still doesn't tell us why "poodle" suits the purpose better than "spaniel", "hound", "terrier", "collie", or whatever. To the extent that it wasn't some quasi-random combination of prosody and mouth-feel, the answer must lie in the cultural history of dogs in late-nineteenth-century England; and again, for this I'll appeal to knowledgeable readers for ideas.

[Update — a little more research turns up evidence of an intense, long-standing masculine antipathy towards lapdogs, which may have played a role in Lloyd George's choice of breeds. Thus this 1844 passage from The New Monthly Magazine and Humorist:

Note specifically the sentence "A general battue of the race of pugs and poodles, Shocks, Snaps, and Fidos, would be a splendid service to the public ; and if the British sportsman is a patriot, this hint will not be given in vain." This is strikingly reminiscent of a bit of between-song chitchat from Gamble Rogers, from a different continent and a century and a half later:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

We got any dog lovers in here tonight?
You notice the way I said that word?
I said "dawg". That's D A W G — "dawg".
That's man's best friend I'm talking about, lovable, loyal and lop-eared.
(He'll) bring you brandy when you're lost in a snow drift,
lay his grizzled snoot up on your knee
and look up at you with those big limpid brown eyes and say "I love you, I'm a dawg."
And then there're dogs: D O G S — yip yaps.
(They) weigh about a pound and a half apiece:
be-jeweled, be-ribboned, be-furred, pomaded, powdered,
painted toenails, rhinestone collars,
designed by God and nature to be trolled in the wake of a slow moving boat
in search of large trash fish … such as hammerhead sharks.

There's a tension here between the "loyal lackey" sense — which would apply perfectly well to honest working dawgs — and the "obnoxious yip-yap" sense, which clearly associated to poodles in 19th-century Britain. Perhaps Lloyd George was drawing on the negative aspects of both senses.]

[Update #2 — Apparently "poodle" is a serious insult in Israel, according to Laurie Copans, "Israeli lawmaker pushing for ban on insults", AP 6/22/2001:

A rookie lawmaker fed up with brutish discourse in Israel's parliament has circulated a list of 68 insults – including swamp fly, king of the swamp and poodle – that she wants banned under threat of reprimand and suspension.

Again, I don't know about the translation aspects of this story: "swamp fly" sounds like a Hebrew-language insult rather than an English-language one, so I presume that it's the Hebrew version of "poodle" that is under discussion.]


  1. Spell Me Jeff said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 11:54 am

    This link on Performing Poodles features a lot of historical quotations that suggest some reasons behind the insult. Other pages on the same site suggest other possibilities. Here's one from an 1894 publication:

    there was a showman, Crawley by name, who performed in London and out of it, with a troup of poodles highly to the satisfaction of the curious at that time. 'The Ball of Little Dogs' he called his exhibition; the dogs he said came from Louvain…and had performed before Queen Anne, greatly to Her Majesty's delight. These dogs danced, two of them, with the grandiloquent titles of Marquis of Gaillerdain and Madame de Poncette, showing extraordinary training by the manner in which their movements kept time and cadence with the music which accompanied them.

    I would certainly hate to be compared to such an animal. The larger point is that a pejorative sense of poodle could easily have been available since mid 19th C.

  2. Luke said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 11:55 am

    I can't speak to the historical meaning, but for me, "poodle" has a much stronger feminine connotation than any other dog. They're pretty, they're prim, they're delicate. My schema is not the image you've provided but a poodle with groomed white fur and possibly some pink bows. That might be what some modern commentators are getting at. (Also interesting to note the connection to the more vulgar but similar saying, in which one person is another's b____.)

  3. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

    "perrito faldero de Mubarak." Google that phrase and you'll find this is the phrase in Spanish that corresponds. A lapdog for Mubarak.

  4. Russell said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

    Off topic here, but I always wondered why "Bitch" carried such strong negative connotations and is even a taboo word, while "Dog" can be used as a compliment in reference to a man.

  5. Dan S said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 12:33 pm

    The phrase "sleeve dog" is new to me, and strikes me as a promising epithet in its own right. In case anyone else is curious:

    Britannica tells us "The celebrated “sleeve dogs” are very small Pekingese once carried by Chinese royalty in the sleeves of their robes."

    And, although I get no hits on COCA or COHA, Google's ngram gadget shows that the phrase was most popular in the early 20th c. The first usage from google books is from the Zoological Society of London Proceedings for 1867 (p. 43), from a letter from a Dr. W. Lockhart:

    "The sleeve dog is a degenerated long-legged variety of Pug rigidly kept on low diet, and never allowed to run about on the ground; they are kept very much on the top of a kang or stove bed-place, and not allowed to run about on the ground, as it is supposed that if they run on the ground they will derive strength from the ground and be able to grow large."

  6. dw said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 12:34 pm

    There seems to have been a long-standing notion that the poodle was a particularly French dog — even though it did not originate in France. For example,

    "hound on the French poodle to attack the British bulldog"

    from 1860. This could help to explain why it might be the insult of choice in a British political context.

  7. Chris said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 12:40 pm

    Slightly off topic, but I think "This being LL not X Log…" now counts as a Snowclone. :)

  8. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » Mubarak’s poodle [] on said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 1:03 pm

    […] Language Log » Mubarak’s poodle – view page – cached February 12, 2011 @ 11:36 am · Filed by Mark Liberman under Language and Tags […]

  9. Paolo said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 1:06 pm

    The Italian expression is "il cagnolino di X" – insted of referring to a specific breed, we use a diminutive form of "cane" to stress the "insignificant lapdog" connotation.

  10. Paolo said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 1:07 pm


  11. Jenny Davidson said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 1:08 pm

    In some contexts, poodles are thought of as lapdogs, but it may be that the force here (aside from general pejorative Frenchness/femininity that is broadly implied) is more to do with the retriever aspect of their behavior: I am thinking specifically of the character of General Conyers in Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, consumed in his retirement with the project of breeding and training poodles to be gun dogs!

  12. engywook said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 1:11 pm

    I don't know Egyptian Arabic (or anything about their military), but as an Arabic speaker I doubt that the mid-level officers used a word like poodle or lapdog, if only for cultural reasons. Calling someone a dog is a serious insult in Arabic culture with a very different connotation from poodle or lapdog.

  13. Janice Byer said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 1:51 pm

    Might it relate to the grooming style traditional to poodles that informs the aphorism, "A poodle is not its haircut"?

  14. David L said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 2:00 pm

    Julius Caesar says to Metellus Cimber:

    Be not fond,
    To think that Caesar bears such rebel blood
    That will be thaw'd from the true quality
    With that which melteth fools; I mean, sweet words,
    Low-crooked court'sies and base spaniel-fawning.

    And Huxley was Darwin's bulldog, of course.

    So spaniels are craven, bulldogs are resolute, and poodles are … poodly.

  15. George Amis said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

    The pejorative senses of poodle seem to have replaced the pejorative senses of spaniel (a servile, fawning person, also as an adj.) which reigned from the late sixteenth century through the late nineteenth century.

  16. David L said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 2:10 pm

    It also occurs to me that 'poodle' is one of those words that, if you say it over and over, sounds very silly indeed. Poodle. Poodle poodle poodle. So calling someone a poodle is a form of ridicule just from the sound alone. Obviously one can't detach the meaning from the sound, but it is a very silly word.

  17. GeorgeW said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 2:17 pm

    I don't have an answer to the question of what the Egyptian officers actually said. But, my guess would be they were copying the Bush-Blair model and said the English word 'poodle' modified for Arabic (which has no /p/) 'buudil.'

    I looked in a couple of dictionaries and all I could find under poodle was 'buudil' and 'kalb zaki' (dog clever 'clever dog').

    I am also not sure where would could find the actual comments as this would almost certainly never have been reported in the Egyptian press.

  18. Adrian Bailey (UK) said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 3:25 pm

    Ah, buduls.

  19. theophylact said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 5:24 pm

    I am His Majesty's dog at Kew; Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?

  20. Jonathan said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 6:56 pm

    Why poodle? Lloyd George must surely take the original credit: but Roy Jenkins seems to deserve the credit for popularising the phrase in British politics by his 1954 book 'Mr Balfour's Poodle' and his earlier articles on the 1906-14 constitutional crisis (see 1948 explanation by Arthur Greenwood MP here ). There's a very useful searchable archive of speeches in the UK Parliament from 1803 to 2005 at the Hansard Archive which shows the word 'poodle' was hardly used there until the 1960s. The early examples show the first uses of 'X's poodle' were direct quotation from Lloyd George and Jenkins; in 1965 it was used in 'the Prime Minister is President Johnson's poodle'.

    [(myl) Thanks for this, and especially for the reference to the searchable archive. I looked briefly in various places, and concluded falsely that the earlier Hansards were not online in searchable form. Thanks to your link, we can see that Lloyd George suggests that the House of Lords should be acting as a different breed of dog:

    §*Mr. LLOYD-GEORGE […] TThe House of Lords consented. This is the defender of property! This is the leal and trusty mastiff which is to watch over our interests, but which runs away at the first snarl of the trade unions.
    §VISCOUNT TURNOUR (Sussex, Horsham) What about your Party?
    §*Mr. LLOYD-GEORGE We did what we promised at the last election. A mastiff? It is the right hon. Gentleman's poodle.

    This helps clarify what "poodle" means in the context of his speech.]

  21. Brett said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 7:28 pm

    @David L: I don't get from that passage that spaniels should be craven but merely thoughtlessly fawning. Compare A Midsummer Night's Dream:

    And even for that do I love you the more.
    I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,
    The more you beat me, I will fawn on you:
    Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
    Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
    Unworthy as I am, to follow you.
    What worser place can I beg in your love,—
    And yet a place of high respect with me,—
    Than to be used as you use your dog?

  22. Ian Preston said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 7:42 pm

    An excerpt from Travels in Sweden by Countess Ida Hahn-Hahn, translated by J. B. S. Clarke & Co and extracted as part of a review in The Athenaeum in May 1845:

    Miss Bremer had just received Eckermann's book on Goethe, and was much pleased with it. I remember that when I read it four years ago Goethe pleased me extremely; he seemed such a truly good-hearted old gentleman, now and then disappearing behind the great author; but Eckermann was most annoying to me – he is more like Goethe's poodle than a human being. Goethe says 'wait!' and he waits. Goethe says 'fetch it here' and he brings it. This is too much for me. I think that even with the most beloved and honoured persons we may still preserve a will and opinion of our own, that we need not sacrifice our individuality. But, indeed, I could never be any man's poodle; neither do I wish to have one, or to see one.

    It is not clear to me how far this reference to someone as a poodle in the context of discussion of Goethe is influenced by or supposed to bring to mind Mephistopheles' appearance in the guise of a poodle in Faust.

    [(myl) Interesting and very relevant, I think — it suggests that in the mid-19th-century, even from a woman's perspective, a poodle could be the figurative prototype for abandonment of individual judgment in favor of slavish obedience.]

  23. Nijma said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 8:55 pm

    From Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men [1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning dissection of Louisiana boss politics]

    "You were like the poodle I heard about. You ever hear about the poodle? There was a drunk had a poodle and he took him everywhere with him from bar to bar. And you know why? Was it devotion? It was not devotion. He took that poodle everywhere just so he could spit on him and not get the floor dirty. Well you were the boss's poodle. And you liked it. You liked to be spit on. You weren't human. You weren't real. That's what I thought. But I was wrong, Tiny. Something down in you there was something made you human. You resented being spit on. Even for money."

  24. Nijma said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 10:10 pm

    "Poodle" in Arabic
    I checked several, ten actually, dead tree dictionaries, pictionaries, and phrase books, including the Oxford Concise, as well as Wehr and Wortabet in Google books and the Hinds/Badawi Dictionary of Egyptian Arabic. Only two list "poodle" at all, the Oxford English-Arabic Dictionary of Current Usage and a 1966 student dictionary printed in Beirut, and they both have lengthy explanations incorporating the word dog "kelb" كلب or كلاب .

    The role of the dog in Arab culture is not at all like the Western meaning. Dogs in general are kept only as guard animals (I believe this is in the Koran), kept outside, and beaten. If you lift your hand above a dog's head to pet it, it will cringe. If you pick up a rock, it will try to run away. Most dogs you wouldn't want to touch though, because they are not clean looking, and they act vicious. More than once I was glad of the rabies shots I had. That said, there are (a very very few) Arabs with pampered canine house pets; the exception proves the rule. I don't know what calling someone a poodle would mean in Arabic culture or in military culture, but as engywook says, for an Arab, using the word "dog" at all is very serious and can provoke a fight. It would be interesting to know if these "mid-level officers at MOD clubs" were speaking in Arabic or English. I did meet Arabs (not Egyptian) who had spent time in the U.S as part of military training and spoke quite fluent English.

    'kalb zaki'
    In Amman, "zacky" means delicious (not sure of the spelling) and is used to describe food.

    B'dul, pronounced bə-DOOL, a bedouin tribe in southern Jordan.

  25. Joyce Melton said,

    February 13, 2011 @ 2:39 am

    As a poodle owner, I can say that this smart dog will do anything for its owner that it can be made to understand. Labs are lazy, terriers are sly, collies are competitive but poodles love to please.

    With all the rest considered, there is probably not a better dog breed to choose for this insult. It certainly would not mean the same to say someone was another person's Akita or Catahoula.

  26. GeorgeW said,

    February 13, 2011 @ 6:32 am

    Nijma: Yes, dogs as house pets are not common in the Arab world. However, one does see a few in Egypt among the more westernized elite which could include military officers.

    "I did meet Arabs (not Egyptian) who had spent time in the U.S as part of military training and spoke quite fluent English."

    Almost certainly Egyptian officers would be relatively fluent in English. Also, I read recently that a high percentage of the Egyptian officer corps had been trained in the U.S. and typically brought their families with them.

    "In Amman, "zacky" means delicious (not sure of the spelling) and is used to describe food."

    The /z/ in zaki 'clever' is the voiced dental fricative which is not in the Egyptian Arabic inventory (I can't insert IPA or Arabic symbols in this form). So, Arabic words with this segment are pronounced /z/ as a voiced, alveolar fricative in the Egyptian dialect.

  27. Zythophile said,

    February 13, 2011 @ 8:36 am

    It is not completely true to say that the dog is despised throughout Arabic culture: the saluki is very highly regarded among Bedouins. But the saluki is a limited and very special case.

  28. Jon Weinberg said,

    February 13, 2011 @ 8:38 am

    Here's a piece of evidence (not remotely as good as the Travels in Sweden quote, but American rather than British) that the poodle was associated with submissiveness as early as the mid-nineteenth century in the U.S.: In an 1854 Ohio court case, a lawyer argues that "[t]ied to her apron strings, he must follow her as submissively as her poodle dog. I cannot think that either law or sense requires this to be done."

    [(myl) More evidence that poodles were seen as archtypes of attentive submissiveness pretty much from the start of their involvement in Anglo-American culture. I find this odd, personally, since the few poodles that I've known have been quirky and even weird in a definitely independent sort of way — one of them had a fatal attraction to anything that could be construed as a turtle, for example.]

  29. GeorgeW said,

    February 13, 2011 @ 11:34 am

    Zythophile: I don't think anyone here said or implied that dogs are "despised' in Arab culture. They have been traditionally used for hunting and protection, but not as household pets. However, In a number of places, there are many strays that may be despised. I have seen drivers swerve over to hit them.

    To call or compare someone to a dog is a huge insult not unlike 'bitch' in English (as noted by Russell above).

  30. Matt McIrvin said,

    February 13, 2011 @ 2:14 pm

    Toy dogs still seem to have a reputation for nastiness. But I wonder how much of this is stereotype; I've known horrible ones but I've also known a couple who were as sweet-natured as any big floppy-eared mutt.

  31. Nijma said,

    February 13, 2011 @ 3:56 pm

    GeorgeW: The /z/ in zaki 'clever' is the voiced dental fricative which is not in the Egyptian Arabic inventory (I can't insert IPA or Arabic symbols in this form).

    Maybe ذكي . A quick copy/past from google translate.

    I have no idea if this is the same as Palestinian "delicious", probably not, but I'm notoriously bad at hearing some of the consonants.

    dog as an insult:
    I have heard this applied to a thief and have taken it in other contexts to be a commentary on someone's character. I have never heard it as a gender slur or applied to a woman.

  32. GeorgeW said,

    February 13, 2011 @ 4:07 pm

    @NiJMA: "Maybe ذكي "

    Yes, that's it!

    I found 'kalb zaki' in a couple of sources under 'poodle.' What I don't know if this is specific to 'poodle' or can be used for other breeds or types of breeds as well.

    FWIW, my wife (an Egyptian-American) had never heard it before. So,it doesn't seem to be a commonly used word.

  33. Xmun said,

    February 14, 2011 @ 4:31 am

    Thank you for quoting Lloyd George: "The House of Lords consented‥. It is the right hon. Gentleman's poodle. It fetches and carries for him. It barks for him. It bites anybody that he sets it on to."
    Who was the right hon. Gentleman? See Roy Jenkins's very enjoyable book, Mr Balfour's Poodle (1954).

  34. chris said,

    February 14, 2011 @ 11:36 am

    Toy dogs still seem to have a reputation for nastiness. But I wonder how much of this is stereotype; I've known horrible ones but I've also known a couple who were as sweet-natured as any big floppy-eared mutt.

    ISTM that they're not so much nasty as neurotic, even paranoid, which I've always attributed to the fact that they live surrounded by terrifying giants. Even most other dogs are much bigger than they are.

  35. ElectricLandlady said,

    February 14, 2011 @ 5:31 pm

    All of the above is fascinating! As to "why not 'terrier'", any terrier person will tell you they bow to nobody. Very independent-minded dogs. At least, they WILL do what you ask, but only if they feel like it at the time, and preferably if it involves chasing something.

  36. Peter G. Howland said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 3:28 am

    Poodles as obsequious dogs, "dog" as an insult, and the mysteries of Arabic aside…I loved the "(a lap dog) possesses a forty-spinster power of malice" line in the1844 New Monthly Magazine article. Kinda gets to the "forty-X" as an all-encompassing superlative discussion here at LL a few days ago.

  37. John Burgess said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 9:39 am

    @Jenny Davidson: There are those who would take exception to your characterization of Poodles as non-sporting dogs. Now, I'll grant that toy or miniature Poodles are not up to it, but standards assuredly are. If you follow the link, you'll see that their coats are cut very differently than show Poodles'. When trained, they are among the top water retrievers.

  38. Daniel [] said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 9:44 pm

    For what very little it's worth, when I first heard someone called a “poodle”, it was Anwar Sadat, said to be “Nasser's poodle”. One can find that epithet verified at Time and elsewhere.

  39. fs said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 12:25 am

    Thanks, I learned a word – "yclept". Heh.

  40. How we’re herded by language | Twelve Language at Braemar said,

    September 12, 2013 @ 5:26 am

    […] meanings shift. Whole theses could be written on the history of armchairs and poodles. Indeed, in a discussion of the poodle trope at the University of Pennsylvania's Language Log site, contributors trace the present meaning […]

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