Friday, July 4, 2008

The Definition of "Bird Dog" via Politics...

From of all places, the New York Times... The last folks one would expect to have any knowledge on the subject. This, by William Safire, and published in The Times on February 24, 2008.


Responding to a cockamamie question a few weeks ago about whether there is a secret agreement to merge the U.S., Mexico and Canada into a single continental nation (MexiCanUs?), Senator Hillary Clinton gently replied, “I’ve heard that story, and there’s not a lot of truth to it.” Not to put down her somewhat vituperative Missouri questioner, the senator added, “If I am president, if I discover there is such an agreement, it’ll be gone in a bird-dog minute.”

William Safire's On Language Column »
What sort of time period is that? Is it shorter than a New York minute? That emphatically speedy moment was coined by a Washington Post headline writer in 1927 about a speech in New York by James Rowland Angell, the president of Yale, that was sped instantly round the world by the newfangled medium of radio.

Mrs. Clinton was first reported using the canine compound adjective in March 1992, answering a question about whether she would go through a rough political campaign again. The Chicago Daily Herald quoted her saying, “I’d do it again in a bird-dog minute, as they say in Arkansas.”

Her Osage locution, unreported elsewhere by search engines, was apparently taken up by her husband, former governor of Arkansas. At a fund-raiser in 2000 for the re-election of Representative John Lewis in Atlanta, President Clinton referred to Lewis’s son, who wore his hair in dreadlocks, and said he told the congressman, “If I was 23 and I could have hair like that, I’d do it in a bird-dog minute.” (Lewis was a stalwart for Hillary in the recent Georgia Democratic primary that was carried by Barack Obama, but he has since wavered.)

A bird dog, according to David Smith of the National Bird Dog Museum, can include such breeds as the English pointer and setter, the American Brittany, the German short-haired pointer and the vizsla. These breeds, however, are known for their industriousness and ability to point and retrieve and not for their speed; an alliterative Southern expression is “busy as a bird dog,” not “fast” as one. The bird dog has been used as a metaphor for brokers, agents and talent scouts, especially in sports. The verb to bird-dog means “to search for relentlessly” or, more aptly, “doggedly,” but not “speedily.”

As a nonpartisan (not postpartisan) lexicographer, I have tried three times to reach someone in Senator Clinton’s presidential campaign staff to point to, pursue and retrieve the source of this colorful expression, which may be a New York doctrine with an Arkansas corollary. Perhaps the Clinton staff is busy with more immediate concerns or mistakenly suspects my query is some sort of rhetorical trap because my political views are congenitally conservative. Therefore, I must turn further etymology of this rare bit of Americana over to that cultural marvel at the University of Wisconsin, the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), whose researchers resolutely bird-dog such dialectical delights.


I would agree with the definition offered by David Smith, with the notable exception of the Gordon and Irish Red Setters, and the French Britts, but everyone knew that... Retrievers, regardless of breeding, while they can be useful in the uplands, are decidedly not Bird Dogs... Just ask William Safire and David Smith of the National Bird Dog Museum.

Here's the definition, courtesy Wikipedia...

A bird dog is a type of gun dog or hunting dog used to hunt or retrieve birds.

In the southern United States the term bird dog refers to dog breeds such as the English Pointer, Gordon Setter, English Setter, Brittany, and other pointing breeds

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