In colloquial German we often use the prefix "hunds-" or "hunde-" to aggravate a negative attribute from various adjectives, e.g.


This painting by François-Hubert Drouais (1770) illustrates that until today dogs are pets. We thus can not easily understand the negative connotation here.

In Grimm's Wörterbuch and other resources I was unable to find anything on the etymology:

hunds-, dieser gekürzte genitiv von hund wird vom 14. jh. ab häufig in uneigentlicher composition angewendet, wovon nachstehend eine reihe von beispielen. die moderne sprache seit dem 18. jahrh. ist diesen compositen abgeneigt, sie zieht die eigentlichen mit hunde- vor, und so haben sich nur wenige solche genitive als erste compositionsglieder allgemein erhalten.

Is there anything known why we use "hund(s/e)-"? Is this related to dogs at all?

  • Bei Hundewetter ein Hundeleben führen und auf den Hund kommen und doch vor die Hunde gehen.
    – Em1
    Feb 22 '12 at 11:53
  • 3
    Aber: mopsfidel. :)
    – musiKk
    Feb 22 '12 at 12:57
  • 4
    "Ein Leben ohne Mops ist möglich, aber sinnlos." - Loriot
    – Jan
    Feb 22 '12 at 14:22
  • François-Hubert Drouais sounds pretty French, so this is super off topic now! ;) Feb 23 '12 at 4:10
  • How is that specific to German? Doesn't English have the term "a dog's life", which does not evoke particularly positive connotations, either? Jun 3 '14 at 19:57

Der Kluge (24. Aufl.) fördert einige weitere interessante Zusammenhänge zutage:

zynisch: (...) (16. Jh.) Entlehnt aus frz. cynique, dieses aus l. cynicus, eigentlich, aus gr. kynikós, zu gr. kYOn "Hund". Zunächst Bezeichnung für eine Gruppe von Philosophen, die äußere Anständigkeit bewußt mißachtete (die also wie die Hunde sind - möglicherweise beruht die Bezeichnung aber auf einem Ortsnamen); dann eingeengt auf verletzendes, spottendes Verhalten. Ebenso nndl. cynisch, ne. cynical, nfrz. cynique, nschw. cynisk, nnorw. kynisk. (...)

Kanaille (...) (17. Jh.) Entlehnt aus frz. canaille "Gesindel", dieses aus it. canaglia "Hundepack", einem Kollektivum zu it. cane "Hund", aus l. canis. Ebenso nfrz. canaille, nschw. kanalje, nnorw. kanalje.

hunzen: (...) (16. Jh.) Neuhochdeutsch zu Hund gebildet wie entsprechendes schwäb. (ver)hundaasen zu Hunde-Aas. Die Bedeutung ist "misshandeln, verächtlich behandeln", eigentlich "behandeln wie einen Hund". Häufiger ist die Präfigierung mit ver-.

Lusche: (...) "Niete, schlechte Karte; Schlampe" (...) (17. Jh.) Zuerst bezeugt in der Bedeutung "Hündin", woraus einerseits "schlechte Karte", andererseits "Schlampe" übertragen ist. ("Hund" als schlechter Wurf oder schlechte Karte ist eine verbreitete Metapher, vgl. l. canis). Weitere Herkunft unklar.

Dies beantwortet zwar nicht die Frage im Speziellen, erweitert aber die Sichtweise dahingehend, dass Hund schon lange und nicht nur im deutschen Sprachraum negativ konnotiert ist. Das wiederum verstärkt die Annahme, dass hund(s/e)- "related to dogs at all" sein könnte.

  • 1
    Das zeigt, dass der Hund in unserer Kultur eine wichtige Rolle spielt, sei die nun positiv oder negativ besetzt.
    – Jakob
    Feb 23 '12 at 12:06

"Canis" is Latin and means "dog". "Canina" (also Latin) means "general/common". I do not know why the Romans derived "general" from "dog", maybe because dogs are roaming and can be found everywhere, but they did.

You can see the usage in words like "Hunds-Rose (Rosa canina)". It's named that way, because it can be found everywhere. And things which can be found everywhere do not have much value.

So from here, hunds- transferred to meaning things of lower value, inferior things (see also "Hundskamille"). It switched from "general" to meaning something negative. And so it is used today in words like "hundsgemein".

This change is probably very old. My Langenscheidt dictionary for Latin translates "canis" also with "Hundewurf", meaning dicing and getting only one pip on each dice as result.

Do not confuse this hunds- with the one in "Hundstage". This word derives from the astronomical constellation "Großer Hund".

  • +1 for the interesting fact about Hundstage.
    – Deve
    Feb 23 '12 at 9:26
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    And now a following question: Does the shift of meaning of the prefix "hund(s)-" coincide with the shift of meaning of "gemein"?
    – Residuum
    Feb 24 '12 at 12:09
  • 1
    @Residuum: Why not asking that as a separate question? It sounds interesting.
    – user508
    Feb 24 '12 at 13:55

First off, to my understanding two of the three adjectives from your example are not negative, not necessarily (elend) or not at all (müde). So while hunde- in those cases undoubtedly amplifies the original meaning, there is not automatically a negative connotation.

In my opinion those two terms, hundeelend and hundemüde have neutral or even compassionate meanings: "miserable like a dog" and "tired like a dog". Ever seen a forlorn puppy's look or a really exhausted dog slumped before an oven? There you go. Those two words are just vivid descriptions of states of being or feeling.

Whereas hundsgemein, at least nowadays, is undoubtedly negative. I'm with Smithers and Residuum on this one though: quite possibly this was not to mean "very mean" originally, but "very common" or "as common as dogs" and the meaning changed when in more recent times gemein began to most often be understood as "mean" instead of "common".


From what I can find, there is a mixing over the centuries of referring the the Middle High German "die hunde" (which means "the treasure") as in "da liegt der Hund begraben" (you see how it morphed into "der Hund") as well as referring to hunting dogs ("die Hunde") as in "vor die Hunde gehen" (as in sick or weak game being easy prey for the dogs).

It would appear that the two similar sounding words have remained in modern usage in certain phrases but have sort of strayed from their original meanings, but the negative connotation probably still leans more to something falling prey or being overwhelmed by something superior. I hope that helps.

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